Drones get legislative scrutiny over privacy worries

ldemer@adn.comOctober 24, 2013 

Growing interest in -- and use of -- unmanned aircraft in Alaska grabbed the attention of legislators this year. Now their new task force is examining whether the state should take action to address privacy concerns.

State Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer and the task force chair, pushed for the group's creation after hearing from residents worried about spying by drone aircraft.

At a task force meeting in Anchorage on Thursday, she stressed that the aircraft in Alaska are far different from the big Predator drones used by the U.S. military that human rights groups contend unlawfully killed scores of civilians.

"We are talking about the smaller, lighter type that we hope to see in use in Alaska, for beneficial uses," Hughes said. Some of the aircraft weigh just 2 pounds.

They don't even like to call the vehicles drones. The new group is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Legislative Task Force, and there's plenty for it to consider.

Unmanned aircraft could be used for mapping and wildlife surveys, for search and rescue operations and crash investigations, for moviemaking and pipeline inspections, for monitoring of oil spills and wildfires, according to testimony to the task force.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has been experimenting with unmanned aircraft for years. It is in the running to be a national test site, the task force was told.

In the next couple of months, Alaska State Troopers expect to acquire their first unmanned aircraft, a $70,000 Aeryon Scout being donated by the National Institute of Justice, said Lt. Steven Adams, a task force member who is overseeing the trooper effort.

Regular people are also acquiring unmanned aircraft, equipping them with cameras, and flying them with almost no government oversight as long as it's for their own fun and not for a commercial purpose, said Ro Bailey, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Amazon is selling thousands of them, the task force was told.

The Federal Aviation Administration's safety standards for model aircraft were set in 1981 and advise operators not to take them above 400 feet and to let the airport know if they expect to be within three miles. Bailey said model plane owners tend to be highly responsible but now the devices being sold are powerful toys.

Troopers intend to operate theirs under strict conditions, Adams said. Troopers will have to get permission from headquarters in Anchorage to deploy it. It will be marked with bright orange paint. Because of its short battery life, it will only fly for 20 minutes at time, he said. An operator on the ground -- who likely will be a certified pilot -- will need to keep the vehicle below 400 feet and within his or her line of sight, Adams said.

The tiny aircraft will be based in Anchorage. It will need to undergo FAA-approved testing and troopers will need training before it can be put into operation, Adams said.

Troopers envision using it mainly for highway crash investigations, Adams said. The aircraft will fly a grid pattern to produce detailed aerial digital pictures that troopers can use to determine measurements that now must be made manually, he said. The hope is to much more quickly reopen the Seward and Glenn highways after bad crashes that now cause traffic to back up for hours.

Troopers also could use it for search and rescue missions, including looking for lost or missing children and the elderly, and to map critical incidents such as natural disasters or oil spills, Adams said.

Troopers don't want to snoop, he said.

"We don't see this as any tool that would circumvent the laws that we have right now or to do anything further than what we already have with manned aircraft and the tools we now use every day," the lieutenant said. "We just would be able to do it faster and at less cost to the state."

Law enforcement agencies likely would need a search warrant to use unmanned aircraft to collect evidence for a criminal investigation, Kathleen Strasbaugh, a legislative lawyer, told the task force.

But some around the country worry that if their use became routine, expectations of privacy might fall away, she said. That shouldn't happen here because of the privacy provision in the Alaska Constitution, she said.

Alaska already has laws against stalking and harassment as well as the strong constitutional protection of privacy, Hughes noted.

If another agency were using one for wildlife monitoring and spotted illegal activity, they could alert law enforcement, which then could seek a search warrant to investigate further, the task force was told.

UAF's Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration has applied to be one of six test sites authorized in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, said Bailey, who also serves on the legislative task force. UAF is leading a team that includes various state agencies as well as the states of Oregon and Hawaii. They propose testing in 14 different ranges, which in Alaska would include the military bases, Kodiak Island, the North Slope and the existing Poker Flat research range. The FAA may make a decision by year's end.

The test sites are supposed to "integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system," Bailey said. The project may determine what type of FAA oversight is needed to ensure safe operation.

The 2012 law also mandates the FAA establish permanent areas in the Arctic for unmanned flights, both for commercial and research purposes. The first approved commercial use of an unmanned aircraft in the nation came last month when ConocoPhillips contractors sent a ScanEagle aircraft over the Chukchi Sea 120 miles offshore from Wainwright.

The UAF center, which was created in 2001, already has received more than 50 FAA approvals for unmanned flights around the country, and some involve numerous launches, Bailey said. In 2009, it sent up one of its aircraft to help map the giant Crazy Mountain complex of fires near Circle. It's documented Steller sea lions in Alaska and assessed salmon nests in Idaho. When a Coast Guard cutter cut a path through ice in the winter of 2011-12 for a Russian tanker to deliver fuel to Nome, one of UAF's unmanned aircraft helped find the best path, she said.

Hughes suggested Alaska might want a citizens panel to oversee missions. But Adams and others on the task force didn't think that would be workable.

The task force is supposed to have its initial report to the Legislature by mid-January.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 

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