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Va. Senate sends moratorium on drones to McDonnell

In a rare show of unanimity, two-year study is approved

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The Virginia General Assembly approved a two-year moratorium on drone aircraft in the state on Thursday, sending the legislation to Gov. Bob McDonnell's desk.

The Senate passed the bill by a 40-0 vote after accepting a change from the House, which passed the bill Wednesday.

Virginia is one of several states to consider regulating drones this year as the Obama administration looks to begin permitting their widespread use domestically in 2015, despite worries from groups on both sides of the political spectrum that they could be used by the government to intrude on citizens' privacy.

Some Virginia lawmakers sought to pass a bill this year explicitly prohibiting state and local law enforcement from using them for warrantless surveillance, but the legislature chose instead to study the issue for two years and think through any possible restrictions.

"We are pleased that it's on the way to the governor with strong bipartisan support," bill sponsor Delegate Benjamin L. Cline, Augusta Republican, told WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va. "We hope that the governor will also share our support for a breathing period to get some rules in place."

The potential use of drones in Virginia has drawn opposition from groups ranging from the Tea Party Patriots Federation to the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The assembly's bill would outlaw general government use of drones, except for National Guard training and for emergency purposes, such as searching for missing children or seniors.

The federal government has used armed drones for airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and currently uses unarmed drones to monitor the nation's southern border.

The Obama administration has made plans to begin awarding personal and commercial drone permits in 2015, and the Federal Aviation Administration estimates there could be as many as 30,000 in U.S. skies by 2020.

A handful of local police forces around the country already have drones, and some have used them to view crime scenes and conduct search-and-rescue missions.

Supporters say they could prove a less-expensive alternative to manned aircraft. Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, praised the technology last year as a possible means for fighting crime and spotting traffic jams, calling it "absolutely the right thing to do."

Many other Virginians have taken a more critical eye toward the technology, including Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, a Shenandoah Republican who sponsored a bill this session that would have set regulations for drone use by police.

Mr. Gilbert's bill drew some bipartisan support and was drawn up with help from the state's ACLU chapter.

Other groups, such as the libertarian Rutherford Institute called for an outright ban on drone use by law enforcement.

"No matter where one stands on the issue of drone use domestically, it is clear that we need to take a well-reasoned approach to how drone technology will be implemented and what safeguards are necessary to ensure that Americans' safety, privacy and civil liberties are not jeopardized," institute President John W. Whitehead said this month in a statement.

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