Agreement on need for privacy rule for drones

John Kuehn State senator says a common question he's asked about drones is: "Can I shoot them down?"


LINCOLN — Glowing lights suddenly appeared outside the panoramic windows of the downtown apartment building.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, at a friend's dinner party in Lincoln's Haymarket, moved to get a better look. Still puzzled, she glanced down at the street and saw a kid with a remote control. The kid waved.

The dinner party had an uninvited guest.

And the Lincoln senator had her first brush with a drone.

"It's so creepy that anyone can use these to look in any house," Pansing Brooks said Thursday, telling the story to her colleagues on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The committee heard testimony on Legislative Bill 720, which would protect private-property owners from drones, also called unmanned aircraft.

Sponsored by Sen. John Kuehn, the bill would make it an invasion of privacy to use drones to capture images, video or audio recordings on private property without the written permission of the property owner.

Since he introduced the bill, Kuehn said he's had lots of discussions about drones.

The most frequent question: "Can I shoot them down?"

Even those opposed to this specific bill said privacy restrictions on drones must be established. But they warned that the legislation's broad approach would probably ground all drones, including those being used for legitimate commercial and scientific purposes.


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For example, Adam Houston, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he flies drones to assist his thunderstorm research.

"There's a negative perception of unmanned aircraft," he said. "We're not naive. We understand why that's the case, and in some cases, it's certainly justified. But we just want to make sure the policy doesn't overstep."

A total of 26 states have passed drone legislation since 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws address privacy, law enforcement use, restricted flying areas, requirements for drone operators and more.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires drone operators, including hobbyists, to register their craft. But the FAA, which regulates airspace, still is working on guidelines for commercial drone use.

No one testified in favor of the Nebraska bill, although the Nebraska Cattlemen submitted a letter of support.

Several people testified in a neutral position, but they expressed reservations about LB 720.

Among them were representatives from the insurance industry, which uses drones to survey damage following natural disasters, and the Nebraska Rural Electric Association, which sees drones as an easier way to inspect power lines in remote areas.

An attorney for Media of Nebraska said many news organizations believe that drones are a tool that can be used to professionally and ethically gather information.

Matt Waite is a UNL journalism professor who founded the Drone Journalism Lab in 2011. He pointed out that current state law protects not only a person's right to privacy, but also to seclusion.

That provision of the law should address misuse of drones to harass someone when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, he argued.

And LB 720 targets a specific technology, one that's rapidly evolving and will most likely prove to have an important role in the state's economy, Waite said.

"Is it the privacy violation that's important, or is it the technology we use to violate it?" he asked.

After the hearing, Kuehn said he doesn't expect the bill to advance out of the committee for floor debate.

But the hearing served the purpose of identifying those with a stake in the issue so they can work together to develop future legislation, he said.

Regardless of what the FAA decides on commercial drone regulations, Nebraska still will have to decide what's proper and what's not when it comes to the use of unmanned aircraft, Kuehn said.

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"There's a negative perception of unmanned aircraft. We're not naive. We understand why that's the case and in some cases, it's certainly justified. But we just want to make sure the policy doesn't overstep."

Adam Houston, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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