Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming an increasingly common tool for law enforcement, wildlife tracking, search and rescue operations, border patrol, disaster response and commercial photography.
But as more UAVs take to the skies, lawmakers nationwide are grappling with how to allow the pilotless aircraft to operate without posing safety risks or violating privacy rights, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Overall, 45 states considered more than 150 bills related to UAVs during the first nine months of 2015, according to the National Conference. Nearly two-thirds of states have passed legislation or adopted resolutions addressing UAVs, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or unmanned aerial systems (UASs).
Most of the legislation is centered on defining UAVs and how they can be used by law enforcement, other state agencies and the public. Virginia, for example, recently enacted legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant before using a UAV in most cases. Florida bans the use of UAVs to photograph private property without an owner’s written consent. Similarly, Arkansas bans the use of UAVs to commit voyeurism.
Other states, including Michigan, New Hampshire and West Virginia, have introduced laws addressing recreational use of unmanned aircraft systems, including for hunting, trapping and fishing, the NCSL reports.
In Tennessee, UAVs can’t be used to photograph outdoor events or fireworks displays and can’t be flown over prisons or jails.
A North Dakota law relating to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance has garnered national attention. Passed in April 2015, the legislation requires law enforcement officers to first obtain a search warrant before using a UAV, except under limited circumstances.
However, by explicitly banning police from arming UAVs with lethal weapons, the law allows for the possibility of unmanned aerial vehicles being equipped with rubber bullets, pepper spray or other nonlethal weapons, according to a report by National Public Radio.
At the national level, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued proposed requirements for operating unmanned aircraft for non-recreational uses, including crop monitoring and aerial photography.
If approved, the regulations would set height and speed limits for UAV flights, and mandate that operators be 17 years or older, have an FAA certification and pass an exam related to aeronautical knowledge.
Federal regulators are seeking to integrate UAVs into the nation’s airspace system. At the same time, rapid technological advances are making the aerial vehicles more accessible to recreational and commercial users, from weekend hobbyists to Amazon.
The increasing number of UAVs in the skies is raising the specter of potential collisions with piloted aircraft, including commercial airlines. Between January and August 2015, there were more than 650 pilot reports of UAVs, up from 238 sightings during all of 2014, the FAA recently announced.
“The FAA wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal,” the agency said in a news release. “Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal