- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Drones likely will generate more interest and concern in 2019, as their fliers find new uses for the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and state and city governments apply more scrutiny to regulate those uses.

A light rain grounded the New York Police Department’s plans to deploy drones for the first time to monitor crowds during the city’s annual New Year’s Eve festivities in Times Square.

But the attention generated by the NYPD’s drone announcement is indicative of the wide-ranging debate about the devices with regard to privacy rights and public safety.

Aviation policy experts say laws and regulations on drones will evolve as the technology transforms all manner of commerce, from farmers using UAVs to create 3D soil analysis maps and real estate agents providing prospective home buyers with bird’s eye views of neighborhoods to retailers delivering goods and news outlets collecting data with drones.

Safety tops the list of urgent issues, especially in the wake of two international incidents last month. The Mexican airline Grupo Aeromexico SAB is still investigating whether a drone crashed into a Boeing 737 jet as the aircraft approached a runway in Tijuana on Dec. 12. The jetliner landed without further incident, but its nose was crushed and partially sheared off in the collision.

In Great Britain, authorities are still trying to discover who flew a series of drones over London’s Gatwick Airport, the country’s second-largest. Drone sightings over Gatwick on Dec. 19-21 forced more than 1,000 flights to be grounded and roiled the holiday travel of about 140,000 passengers.

“Counter-drone technology is going to play a large role in 2019,” Josh Olds, president and co-founder of the Unmanned Safety Institute, told Commercial UAV News last week. “It is hard to ignore the situation at Gatwick as this has been a concern since the earlier portion of this decade for airports and large event venues.”

Meanwhile, President Trump in October signed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018, which lays out new rules for recreational drone use. Among other rules in the act, hobbyists can fly drones:

That are registered with the FAA.

Only with visual line-of-sight.

Weighing no more than 55 pounds.

Under community-based safety guidelines.

Drone experts say the law clarifies some regulatory discrepancies between hobby and commercial use, including license testing procedures for hobbyists, and limits how high (400 feet) nonprofessionals can fly UAVs.

But state and local governments are creating their own regulations on drones.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in at least 38 states considered UAV-related proposals in 2017.

Last year, three states — Alaska, North Dakota and Utah — also took up drone legislation.

What’s more, Alaskan lawmakers created a task force to monitor the use of UAVs over their state’s vast unpopulated tracts of terrain. Legislators in North Dakota supported boosting the drone industry, and Utah lawmakers approved the construction of a NASA drone testing facility.

Florida lawmakers already have pre-filed two major drone laws for the upcoming legislative session aimed at ending state bans on law enforcement using drones in any capacity.

The bills would allow police and other agencies to use unmanned aircraft to assess traffic accidents, collect crime scene evidence and assist in crowd control.

The privacy debate has begun, with the Florida American Civil Liberties Union describing the proposals as potentially violating citizens rights.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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