Brunswick sheriff lobbies for drone use


By Molly Parker

In a letter to state lawmakers, Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram on Monday said he sees great potential for unmanned aircraft – commonly known as drones – in assisting the county in search and rescue operations, patrol of the waterways, marijuana busts and hostage situations.

He urged lawmakers to consider regulations “related to the safe operation of such technology” while cautioning against legislating privacy matters, saying that application of constitutional protections is the courts’ jurisdiction.

Ingram’s letter was to members of the state House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which met for its second of four scheduled meetings Monday.

The committee was created to study the issue of drones in North Carolina after a state Senate bill crafted with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stalled in the General Assembly last session.

Lawmakers did, however, include language in their budget bill placing a moratorium of the purchase of drones by state and local personnel unless the use is approved by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The moratorium lifts in July 2015.

In his letter, Ingram said his agency currently uses a helicopter to assist in search and rescue operations; in search operations of drowning victims; to patrol waterways and the Cape Fear River; to assist in marijuana eradication; to provide a safe observation platform during emergencies such as hostage situations or barricaded suspects; and to provide visual access to areas of the county that are difficult to reach, such as swamp land.

But, he said there are barriers to use of the manned helicopter, including availability of the pilot, who is also a full-time detective, the extended time necessary to get the helicopter airborne, and the expense of maintenance and operation. Ingram said he expects to utilize unmanned aircraft in similar ways as the manned helicopter – “with the ability to deploy a UAS more quickly and with less expense.”

“There is no practical difference between the use of a manned versus an unmanned aircraft to the general public, and there should be no legal distinction between the two, with the possible exception of an altitude restriction over residential areas,” he wrote.

Sarah Preston, policy director at ACLU of North Carolina, however, said it’s a flawed argument to compare manned helicopters to drones. Because the former are so expensive, she said, there’s a natural restriction on law enforcement acquiring too many. But with a drone costing around $35,000 to $40,000, “they are a tool that law enforcement could much more easily abuse,” she said.

National debate

The debate in North Carolina is playing out in legislatures around the country. Some estimates say as many as 30,000 drones could be operating in the United States by 2020.

According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), North Carolina was one of 13 states to enact 16 new laws related to regulation of the unmanned aircraft systems, also referred to as UASs, in 2013.

Forty-three considered 130 different bills, NCSL reported.

State Rep. Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba, the House study panel’s co-chairman, said the committee will produce a final report that he hopes turns into a legislative solution for consideration in the short session that begins in May.

The goal, he said, is to strike a balance between protecting individual liberties and embracing new technologies that could aid law enforcement and others.

“We’d like for one for the General Assembly to be ahead of the technology instead of behind it trying to catch up,” Setzer said.

Presently, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the commercial use of unmanned aircraft – though tests are being run in places across the map, including North Carolina.

The NextGen Air Transportation Center, based at N.C. State University, has permission to fly very small aircraft over acreage in Hyde County and in Butner and Moyock.

The bill sponsored by Setzer last session would have required state and local law enforcement to have a search warrant for “reasonable suspicion” in order to use data collected by a drone in a criminal investigation.

But Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema, on behalf of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, urged caution to lawmakers at Monday’s hearing, asking that they not “legislate a solution to a problem that does not yet exist.”