Ga. lawmakers weigh regulating drones



ATLANTA — Georgia would take the first steps to regulating the use of drones through legislation under consideration in the General Assembly.

Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, has sponsored a bill that would provide for the lawful use of unmanned aircraft in certain circumstances. A separate bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Allison, R-Blairsville, would prohibit manned or unmanned aircraft from flying within 100 feet above the surface of a property for surveillance without a search warrant or permission of the property owner.

There has been a push across the country in state legislatures to address the use of drones, with privacy and government surveillance among the chief concerns. Thirteen states enacted laws last year with various limits, and others like Georgia continue to weigh legislation.

“It’s an issue that is about to boom rapidly,” Geisinger said. “This is primarily to prevent snooping, but also to give the legitimate users an opportunity to operate responsibly.”

Co-sponsors of Geisinger’s bill include three high-ranking Republican lawmakers, who chair various House committees. One is Republican Rep. Tom McCall, of Elberton, chair of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, who said he wants to make sure the interests of farmers are protected. Some in the agriculture industry believe drones could revolutionize farming, with the possibility of unmanned aircraft surveying crops and helping to monitor for disease.

Geisinger’s bill, HB 846, would establish specific situations in which it would be legal for drones to capture images and would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to use a drone to capture an image for surveillance. The legal circumstances would include university research, military operations and law enforcement activities, among others.

Currently, drones are most commonly used by the military. The Federal Aviation Administration does not allow for commercial use but does allow public agencies, including law enforcement, to obtain authorization to operate a drone.

Allison’s bill, HB 848, would set a 100-foot “protected zone” above the surface of a property and would render any evidence obtained by any aircraft flying within that area to be inadmissible in court. Allison was not able to be reached late Friday to discuss his bill. Both are assigned to the same House committee, and a hearing on them has yet to be set. The prospects of either bill are uncertain with lawmakers already moving quickly through the 40-day session.

Geisinger, who serves as vice chair of the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, said his bill also adds state oversight and reporting by local law enforcement agencies. He said it was modeled after a bill passed last year in Texas.

Under the bill, law enforcement agencies could use a drone in the immediate pursuit of a person whom authorities have reasonable suspicion to believe has committed a serious offense, to document a crime scene, to investigate the site of a death or fatal traffic accident, to search for a missing person and to conduct a “high-risk tactical operation” that poses a threat to human life.

It would require law enforcement agencies every two years to report to the state the circumstances of each instance a drone was used as well as the number of criminal investigations aided by a drone and costs associated with its drone program.

“All it is, is to make sure they are not abusing the authority they have been given,” Geisinger said. “Without this legislation there would be no reporting and no oversight.”

Terry Norris with the Georgia Sheriff’s Association said his group was still reviewing both bills and had not yet taken a position. He said he’s not aware of any local sheriff’s department in the state who has a drone or has access to one.

“For law enforcement it’s an emerging technology, and like any other cutting edge technology that may help us do the job, certainly the sheriffs are interested in it,” Norris said.