- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa should take a wait-and-see approach to regulating unmanned aerial vehicles because of their huge potential for positive uses in business and government, the Iowa Department of Public Safety advises in a new report.

The report, requested by lawmakers in May, suggests that existing legal safeguards may suffice for now to protect citizens against the threat of misuse of drones by government and private individuals. Meanwhile, a consensus has developed that the aircraft, which can be used to shoot photos or video, will greatly benefit agriculture and other private industries, police work, and government operations, the report states.

Farmers use the pilotless aircraft to check on their crops, and University of Iowa scientists are deploying them in research. The Department of Transportation would like to fly them to inspect bridges and monitor traffic outside events. And other agencies hope to use them to assess damage during disasters, search for missing people and conduct surveillance.

But many lawmakers are concerned about their privacy implications and are considering tighter restrictions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is proposing legislation banning the use of weaponized drones, requiring oversight of how police agencies acquire the technology, and directing agencies to delete surveillance information that isn’t necessary for an investigation.

“Legislators should act now to clearly define reasonable limits to drone use before problems develop,” said ACLU attorney Rita Bettis.

But the DPS report cautions against broad regulation, warning it could hamper the technology’s deployment. Any problems with misuse could be narrowly addressed later when lawmakers “have the full picture as to what benefits the state, its citizens, and business can derive from unmanned aircraft usage.”

“It may be beneficial for Iowa to take a page from the history books and regulate unmanned aircraft technology as needed rather than in a preemptive manner,” the report says, saying light regulation helped develop the Internet and cellphones.

The report was requested in a bill signed by Gov. Terry Branstad that banned the use of drones to enforce traffic laws and required law enforcement to obtain warrants to use any evidence they gather in criminal cases. The bill asked the department to study whether Iowa’s criminal code should be changed to regulate drones and develop model guidelines for their usage.

The report pushes back against the warrant requirement, noting that courts have “for decades upheld warrantless searches outside of a home.” While courts haven’t ruled on drones specifically, “existing case law suggests that governmental use of the unmanned aircraft, without a warrant, would not violate the Fourth Amendment in most circumstances.”

Instead, the report suggests agencies adopt voluntary guidelines recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police governing their use.

The report concludes that current laws could be used to try to prosecute people who misuse drones, but it’s unknown whether charges would stick.

It’s unclear whether a hovering aircraft inside someone else’s property would amount to trespassing because the law “contemplates physical entry by a person.” Many uses of drones to watch people in their homes would not be considered invasion of privacy, which applies only to crimes that are sexually motivated. And the stalking and harassment laws may not apply to people remotely using unmanned aircraft because an offender must be in “visual or physical proximity” to the victim.

“It’s those little nuances that make me and others say that we need to be ahead of the curve on this and not responding when something really bad happens,” said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, who managed the bill this year and expects to revisit the issue in the upcoming session.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley

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