Drone warfare: Olympia vs. robot

A bipartisan group of legislators is getting behind a new bill that would regulate the use of unmanned government drones.
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A Seattle Police officer shows off a drone at the Garfield Community Center.

A bipartisan group of legislators is getting behind a new bill that would regulate the use of unmanned government drones.

An Eastern Washington Republican introduced a bill Friday in the House to regulate government use of unmanned drone aircrafts in Washington.

Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee has 11 Republican and eight Democrat co-sponsors for the bill, which would require law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants whenever they use drones for search and surveillance matters. The warrants would have to specify what officers are looking for, and the bill puts restrictions on any extra personal information obtained by the drones. Exceptions would be made in emergencies or when someone's safety is at stake.

Law enforcement agencies would be required to keep extensive records on their use of drones, which would have to be submitted annually to the state patrol and the appropriate elected officials. The bill also covers non-law agencies — such as the state departments of agriculture, transportation and ecology — to keep records and protocols on their use of any drones. These also must be submitted in detail to the governor or an official designated by the governor annually.

Currently, Taylor said, the Washington Department of Transportation uses a drone in the Okanogan County area to keep tabs on avalanches.

According to Taylor, the idea for the bill surfaced last November after the Washington Farm Bureau voiced concerns about the use of state drones, coupled with the national surge in use of and interest in drones.

"These technological advances often outpace statutory protections and can lead to inconsistent or contradictory interpretations between jurisdictions,” the bill explains. “The legislature finds that regardless of application or size, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, without public debate or clear legal authority, creates uncertainty for citizens and agencies throughout Washington state."

Taylor said the American Civil Liberties Union is expected to provide input to his bill. Noting the number of Democrats co-sponsoring the bill, Taylor said: "The idea of freedom and liberty is bipartisan."

The Seattle Police Department seriously flirted with using drones before Mayor Mike McGinn nixed that proposal last week, as the Seattle Times reported.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8