The specter of obtrusive eyes from the skies has galvanized a political alliance across a broad philosophical spectrum. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of public agencies — particularly law enforcement — using drone aircraft. The idea prompted conservative 15th District Rep. David Taylor, during the last legislative session, to propose limits on drone use.
The proposal found wide bipartisan support but died due to opposition from Boeing, which manufactures drones through a subsidiary, Insitu, in Klickitat County. Lawmakers said they would study the issue over the summer and come back with a new proposal in 2014. Washington state is not alone, being one of at least 32 states in which similar legislation was proposed in 2013.
The drone issue is not going away soon, as interest is rising among a number of private-sector entities. Farmers view drones as a potentially useful tool for surveying crops, monitoring for disease or spraying pesticides and fertilizers with precision. They also could ward off birds and pollinate trees; such devices already are finding use in Japan and Brazil.
There are other ideas, too. Most famously, Amazon.com is considering using self-guided drones to deliver packages. And public agencies outside of law enforcement also see their value. The state Department of Natural Resources last year considered using drones to monitor forest fires; they can fly in smoky conditions that would put human pilots at risk, and some drones can stay up in the air longer than piloted craft. They also can be used to assess forest health and in search and rescue operations.
And so, drone development is moving forward, as the Federal Aviation Administration recently announced six test sites to develop new technologies for the craft. Washington state made its pitch with a coalition of agencies and organizations in Washington proposing a flight center at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake. Under that plan, the Yakima Training Center would have been one of several sites for testing. But the state lost out to competition from Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia. The Alaska center plans to conduct flights over ranges in Eastern Oregon, including Pendleton and the Warm Springs Indian reservation.
So the issue isn’t so much how to stop drones as how to manage them. The privacy concerns raised by Taylor run deep, especially in a state with a strong libertarian streak. While his bill targeted use by public agencies, the concerns will spill over to private entities as well. Commercial use of drones is illegal for now but will change next year; Congress in 2012 directed the FAA to grant access to U.S. skies by September 2015. The FAA predicts that 30,000 drones could be flying over America by 2020.
Drone technology is moving forward, with or without legislation. It’s in the state’s interest for the Legislature to develop a law that addresses privacy concerns yet is palatable not only to the private entities that manufacture drones, but the public and private parties that want to use them.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.