Bill seeks to regulate drones in Maine airspace

Scott Thistle/Sun Journal

Christopher Taylor, back right, talks to Maine lawmakers and state government staff about unmanned aerial vehicles that can be used for aerial surveillance. Taylor's company, Viking Unmanned Aerial Systems in Limington, builds the vehicles for fire and rescue services. Lawmakers in the Legislature's Judiciary Committee were taking testimony on a bill that would limit the civilian use of UAV or drones in Maine during a hearing Tuesday. To Taylor's right is the committee chairwoman, Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco.

AUGUSTA — The buzz of high-flying police surveillance drones in the airspace above Maine is not yet common, and that's why state Sen. John Patrick hopes the Legislature will support a bill that regulates the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Kristy Wigglesworth/Associated Press

A U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan on Jan. 31. State Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, says he wants limits on how drones, which are unmanned aerial vehicles, are used by law enforcement in Maine.

"This is a real opportunity for us to be proactive on something," the Rumford Democrat said Tuesday morning before a hearing on his bill in the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

Patrick said the bill doesn't aim to prohibit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones or UAVs, it just sets some parameters for their use, including requiring a judge to issue a search warrant that shows police have probable cause before they are allowed to use the vehicles to gather evidence.

Patrick said his bill is raising a lot of questions, including whether the surveillance video from drones operated by government entities would be subject to the state's Freedom of Access Act. 

Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes urged the panel to slow down as it contemplates all the complexities surrounding the use of the technology. 

Stokes, speaking on behalf of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, suggested the Legislature impose a one-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement while the Legislature works out the details. He said Patrick's bill, while well-intended, has several flaws, including that the description of a drone in the bill doesn't include whether it even has a camera. 

Stokes suggested that the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees, with citizen input,  develop a protocol for law-enforcement drone use.

"Drones aren't being used at this time, as far as I know, by law enforcement," Stokes said. "So a moratorium really does no harm."

Patrick's bill is focused on the use of drones in private spaces, but Stokes said the law should also consider the use of drones in public spaces.

Stokes said a year would be a reasonable time frame for coming up with a suitable law.

Several others speaking against the bill said there were specific uses of the technology that shouldn't be banned in Maine, including the use of drones for aerial photography for land surveying or for emergency search-and-rescue operations.

Christopher Taylor, the president of Viking Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc., based in Limington, told the committee that his company has been involved in the research and development of drones since 2008.

Taylor offered his company's services to any municipality or state agency that wanted to further study the technology. 

"Although technology is and can be scary to some and maybe most (people), it has limitations," Taylor said. " ... Those limitations should be researched and understood prior to restricting any use of the technology."

Taylor suggested that Maine could be the leader and set the example for other states' drone regulation. 

Others speaking in favor of the bill, including Eric Brakey of New Gloucester, chairman of the Defense of Liberty PAC, said Patrick's bill had bipartisan support.

"Regardless of our political party we can all understand the desire to be free from aggressions on our privacy and our liberty here in the state of Maine," Brakey said.

Brakey and others said the Legislature should consider the Fourth Amendment right that protects citizens against unwarranted searches and seizure.

Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine, which supports the bill, said drone technology was already commercially available and easily obtainable, yet Maine had no regulations concerning its use. 

She said the ACLU was involved because it wants to ensure the Fourth Amendment is protected.

Bellows said in the course of one week ACLU of Maine staff members were able to find three drones that could have been taken to the State House. They did bring two Tuesday.

"Drones are relatively cheap, easy to obtain and within the space of a few years may be ubiquitous in the American airspace," Bellows said. "Technology has turned science fiction writers into prophets."

Patrick, the bill's author, said there were at least 15 other states seeking to limit drone use, including Virginia, which passed a two-year moratorium.

"I hope this legislation will be the beginning of a much-need conversation about bringing our privacy laws up to date and protecting both safety and privacy in Maine," Patrick said.

At least one lawmaker on the committee Tuesday had a visceral reaction to the idea a drone could be spying on him in his house or his yard.

"If I saw one of these flying over my house," Rep. Wayne Mitchell, D-Indian Island, said, "I'd shoot it down." Mitchell is a nonvoting member of the Legislature representing the Penobscot Nation.

The committee will take Patrick's bill up again during a work session scheduled for Thursday, March 7.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Noel Foss's picture

If they DO start sending drones into the sky...

I'm going to mow "POT HERE!" with an arrow pointing at my neighbor's house into my lawn all summer. And maybe see if I can get him to mow "NO THERE'S NOT!" into his...

Alice Barnett's picture

air space

you do not own it.....the wind turbines own the air behind me......

Wayne Mitchell how high can you shoot?

Noel Foss's picture

Shrug. I can see his point.

Not the shooting down part; that'd be destruction of government property and is kind of a no-no. And shooting into the air is pretty irresponsible, given that the bullet eventually does come back down...
But if people own the mineral rights for their parcel of land, I don't think it's unreasonable to consider the airspace over their house to be their property as well, within certain altitude limits.
For example, let's say I bought property on both sides of yours. Then I built a parking garage that completely covered your house and property, but didn't actually touch your property. Or if I built a giant swinging weathervane that would periodically position itself over your house and driveway. I think it could be argued that those would both be a violation of your property rights, even though they wouldn't actually be trespassing on your land.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

They have rights too...

Living in a state such as Maine, I can't imagine people seeking more and more remote locations to commit crimes and hide out. Don't these individuals have a right to their privacy? Lets not imagine that these people would be coming out of their hideouts with drugs for sale, like drugs that require some privacy to concoct. Or worse yet, people coming out ON those drugs in question.
Who could possibly agree to the use of small radio controlled, easily replaceable, unmanned surveillance equipment, when we could go up against their assault rifles and machine guns with a fully staffed police helicopter? If we're going to fight crime in this state, we need to put as many good men in harms way as possible, and use the most expensive tools at our disposal. I say we regulate the smaller much more effective surveillance equipment to traffic control. We wouldn't want to risk stepping on someones civil rights while their trying to figure out which end of the old car radiator the new Meth should come out. OH, Wait, I mean the new "Moonshine", no just a minute, maybe that old radiator is part of a stash of stolen auto part for scrap. The price of scrap is up. We haven't got a clue what their doing, I wish we had some way knowing just what their up to.....

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Toothpaste

I think trying to stop these things will be like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube once it's out. I can see requiring warrants to search someone's home, car or business but to say that individual people own the sky seems like something that will be unenforcible. As I read the law if something is in plain sight then law enforcement has a right to it. I think something that can be spotted from the sky is in plain sight. It would be strange to say that law enforcement cannot apply the law for a pot field, poaching, a burglary in progress or a stolen car because they happen to spot it from the air on the way to something else. I seems it would also make some rescues and border enforcement more complicated than they need to be. That being said, there should probably be limits to looking into windows or listening inside homes but we already have warrantless wiretaps with other devices so there probably isn't that much difference with using drones.

Jason Theriault's picture

How is this different

How is this different than any other government vehicle? Is there regulations on helicopters that have people in them? If so, apply the same laws.

Really, it should have the same laws as any aircraft.

RONALD RIML's picture

Rep. Wayne Mitchell

Would you also shoot at Police Cars that drive by your house???

And folks wonder why I worry about the 'Crazies'.......

Bob Berry's picture

Hell hath frozen over...

I actually agree with the ACLU.

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