States Wrestle with Restrictions on Drones

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) has signed legislation that drastically reduces the ability of police departments in his state to use drones for surveillance.

It also makes it clear that drones should never be equipped with weapons, used for private surveillance, or to keep an eye on people speaking or holding rallies in public.

North Dakota is not the only state to be embroiled in a discussion over the use of drones to spy on its citizens.

But in North Dakota, the debate has been about more than the protection of privacy. Economic development and jobs were factors just as, if not more, important than constitutional concerns.

The North Dakota Legislature and Gov. Dalrymple agreed on legislation limiting the use of drones in mid-April. This was not a debate quickly settled.

It took the legislature in Bismarck more than two years to do this deal, in part because the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department has been relying on the use of drones in its surveillance operations.

But a bigger reason for the extended North Dakota debate was a desire to become a national or perhaps worldwide center for the development of unmanned aerial systems, better known as “drones.”

While the legislative debate over civil rights droned on (pun intended), North Dakota and Grand Forks County officials were trying to put together Grand Sky Technology Park, an unmanned aerial systems (drones) business and aviation park on the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Drones have become big business. And if a state like North Dakota can latch on to it in the early stages, the payoff could be huge.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has released a report showing more than 70,000 jobs could be created in the U.S. by companies researching, developing and selling unmanned aerial systems in the next three years.

The industry group forecasts an economic impact in the U.S. of more than $13.6 billion.

The AUVSI is keeping an eye on states that may not be as friendly to the manufacturers of drones as North Dakota.

The AUVSI is worried about Nevada and the introduction of AB239 as an “anti-UAV-bill” is already of concern to developers, manufacturers, and commercial users of UAV technology from New York to Silicon Valley, according to an AUVSI press release.

“Proposed and unwarranted limitations on the early adopters of this technology, namely public safety, have already created concern with investors and providers of the technology. These concerns have prompted companies to follow Amazon to Canada for testing and development and AB 239 will have an adverse effect on the economic interests of Nevada,” the statement concludes.

The drone industry is also worried by efforts to limit the use of drones in Virginia.

It seems like Virginia, the home state of some of the world’s omnipotent surveillance acronyms — the CIA, FBI, and NSA — with hundreds of thousands of people employed by the nation’s military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities, would welcome drones with open arms.

However, Virginia has become another epicenter of the effort to limit government’s power to know where its citizens are every minute of every day, whether they are suspected of a crime or not.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has applauded the Virginia General Assembly’s rejection of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) amendments to drone-limiting legislation.

“The 21st century demands that we update our laws to ensure Virginians’ privacy is not undermined every time law enforcement employs a new technology,” Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said.

Privacy and civil rights concerns were part of the debate in North Dakota, and limits on the use of drones were signed into law by Gov. Dalrymple. But the restrictions were not severe enough to scare away one of the titans of drone development.

Close to a week after the legislature approved the bills that would for the first time impose limits on the use of drones in the skies over North Dakota, Gov. Dalrymple said $2.5 million in state funds would be available to further develop Grand Sky because they found an anchor tenant for the business and aviation park.

The lease was signed by one of the biggest drone manufacturers in the world, Northrop Grumman. Dalrymple said that deal would “solidify” North Dakota’s position as one of the leaders in the unmanned aerial systems industry.

Northrop Grumman designed and manufactures the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system flown out of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“Northrop Grumman is a global leader in aerospace technology and their commitment to Grand Sky represents another important milestone in our continuing work to develop Grand Sky and to become a national hub for UAS manufacturing, research and development,” Dalrymple said.

Tom Vice, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said the signed lease permits Northrop Grumman to complete its initial designs and plans for the new facility on 10 of the approximately 217 acres that will make up the Technology Park on Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"Northrop Grumman remains committed to bringing innovative programs in industry, education and research to the region," said Vice. “Northrop Grumman is proud of our strong relationship with North Dakota and we look forward to a long and mutually beneficial working relationship.”