In a story on August 27, 2015, NPR is reporting that armed police drones have been authorized for used by North Dakota law enforcement agencies. This is not entirely accurate, nor is it entirely inaccurate.
The law does address privacy and due process concerns in that it requires warrants to use drones for surveillance. It also prohibits “lethal” weapons from being mounted on drones.
The early drafts of the bill specified neither lethal nor non-lethal weapons could be mounted on drones. The fact that the restriction against non-lethal weapons was removed is where the concern being propagated across the internet stems from. The original author of the bill did not want the law to authorize armed drones, and noted that the change was made by a law enforcement lobbyist in committee and that he did not dispute the change because he, “wanted the bill to pass at least to require warrants.”
There are a few lessons which can be drawn from this article that deserve thoughtful consideration.
1. Drone use by government agencies is a privacy concern.
45 states have contemplated 156 bills concerning drone use. http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/current-unmanned-aircraft-state-law-landscape.aspx
The laws that have been enacted, and those under consideration in states, have been concerned with privacy issues and mostly privacy issues about government use of drones. This is similar to the law that passed in North Dakota which requires warrants for government agencies to use drones for surveillance.
2. The law does not restrict the use of drones to deploy less-than-lethal weapons.
The law does allow for drone use during exigent circumstances and also only restricts lethal weapons. This is not to say citizens should be worried that prongs from tasers and pepper spray will be raining down from the sky. In a story by Popular Science, the author gives good points as to why drones with non-lethal weapons are not in the near future for North Dakota. However, the restriction is based on police policies and not a legislative mandate.
3. Government agencies must still follow the restrictive regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA has taken a stand that it will not regulate privacy concerns related to drone use and will merely focus on the safe and legal use of drones in the national airspace system. Drone regulations therefore apply to three different categories of drone operators including hobbyists, businesses, and government. Government agencies must receive FAA authorization via a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The COAs are very specific including the type of drone that can be flown, the purpose of the drone, and the area the drone is allowed to fly. Regardless of state laws, government agencies at all levels will still have to follow FAA regulations, which at this time, is fairly restrictive.
4. Lobbyists have power to set the agenda in American politics. The North Dakota law was originally intended to restrict government use of drones, yet lobbyists were able to remove a main portion of the bill that restricted all weapons, not just lethal weapons.
In summary, the North Dakota law allows us to consider concerns with future use of drones by government agencies. The first and largest concern still seems to be privacy. The removal of restrictions against less-than-lethal weapons on drones in North Dakota does not seem to be an immediate concern, but nonetheless deserves consideration as technology improves.