- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Proposed rules for flying unmanned aircraft in North Carolina seek to balance privacy concerns with the benefits for police and private industry, a legislative committee leader said Wednesday.

A House panel examining the use of drones made recommendations for the General Assembly when it returns next month.

The federal government essentially bars the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, but that’s likely to change in the next couple of years as nationwide rules are assembled. Aircraft are being tested across the country, including through a transportation center located at N.C. State University.

An earlier outside study looked at the possibility for new jobs and companies to emerge because of drones, and law enforcement could use the technology to investigate crimes. But some citizens are worried that a radio-controlled hobby plane equipped with a camera could be used to spy on them.

“Hopefully we’ve left it open for a market-growth opportunity,” said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston and committee co-chairman. But “we want to address concerns of the public. We feel like we’ve done a good start. This is the beginning. It’s not the end.”

Draft legislation would make it unlawful for anyone or state agencies to use a drone to conduct surveillance of a person, their home or a farm without written permission. It would also be illegal to use the aircraft to take a photo of a person for wide dissemination without their permission. It wouldn’t apply to media covering news or public events. Violators could be sued.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who added the media exception, had concerns about whether the proposal would require an artist using a drone to record pictures of a city skyline to obtain permission from people living in apartments below.

The legislation said aircraft could be used by state or local law enforcement to respond to the high risk of a terrorist attack, to prevent “imminent danger” to life or to search for mission persons. Police also could obtain a search warrant to use the aircraft, but wouldn’t need one if a warrant wasn’t needed for a piloted aircraft in similar circumstances.

Sarah Preston with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the search warrant requirements still need a little work.

“Drones are different from manned vehicles, the regulation may need to be a little different,” she said.

The committee members also proposed a licensing system for operating the aircraft - once federal regulators authorize commercial flights - that would include a skills and knowledge test. Someone operating an aircraft improperly could face an infraction. Anyone who interferes with a flight could be guilty of a low-grade felony. The aircraft couldn’t be used to hunt and fish, either.

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