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State legislators grapple with drone privacy and safety issues as UAVs take off

What’s the difference between photographing a piece of private property from a Cessna airplane and doing the same thing with a drone? And does Washington state want to allow drones flying around its prisons?

Those are two of the questions that popped up Tuesday during a short hearing on a bill to regulate private drones flying over private land. In fact, that was the bulk of the public feedback on the bill filed by Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, which was the subject of the hearing in the Washington House Technology & Economic Development Committee, which Morris chairs.

Three people testified. Mark Slayton of Bremerton brought up the Cessna question, contending that a person’s property rights should not extend above the highest structure on a piece of land.

James McMahan of the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs and Candice Bock of the Association of Washington Cities testified that Morris’ bill should address the flying of private drones around the state’s correctional facilities. Bock also called for some restraints on private drones over public events, citing safety concerns.

Morris tweaked his bill prior to Tuesday’s hearing. In its current form, the bill:

  • Requires a private drone with sensor equipment— such as a camera or video — to be labeled with the name and contact information of the owner.

  • Allows a private property owner to file a lawsuit against the owner of a trespassing drone if the property owner has already warned the drone owner, and the drone had previously ventured into the disputed airspace. The bill sets no state-mandated altitude dividing line between private and public airspace. However, Federal Aviation Administration rules keep private drones at less than 400 feet.

  • Entitles a property owner winning such a lawsuit to $5,000 and attorney fees from the losing drone owner.

This is the seventh bill — including three by Morris — filed since 2015 in Washington state to address private drones flying over others’ private properties. In the past two years, six Senate and House bills by both Republicans and Democrats have been filed to govern private drones flying over others’ property. None made it to a full floor vote in either chamber.

In mid-2016, the FAA issued rules for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

Under the new commercial-oriented regulations, a drone operator must be able to see the drone at all times. Such drones must not go higher than 400 feet in altitude or fly faster than 100 mph. They cannot be flown over people not directly involved in operating the drones. And anti-collision lights are required for twilight flying. Night flying is forbidden.

Drones carrying packages cannot weigh more than 55 pounds after the package is added. Prior to mid-2016, people flying commercial drones needed pilot’s licenses. Today, a person older than 16 can take an aeronautical test at an FAA-approved site and pass a background check for a remote pilot certificate.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the FAA had registered 18,940 drones for commercial use in the United States by August 2016. The FAA speculated that 600,000 commercial drones could be registered by the end of 2017, the Times reported.

The commercial rules do not apply to private people using drones for non-commercial purposes. The FAA rules for non-commercial, non-government use require registering a private drone with the federal agency. The operators must be at least 13 years old. A 400-foot legal ceiling exists. Private drones are not to be flown near airports, over groups of people, near sporting events, near emergencies such as fires, and not while the pilot is intoxicated.

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