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RI Bill Seeks to Regulate Use of Drone Technology

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


(Photo: Don McCullough, Flickr)

Saying science fiction has become science fact, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D, District 34) has reintroduced legislation to regulate drone use by local law-enforcement agencies. The bill didn’t make it to a vote when she proposed it last year. But she believes a lot can change in one year.

“People last year were taken off guard by this,” she said.

“It was way too ‘science fiction.’ Now it’s rapidly coming to people’s understanding of how accessible this technology is. Law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country are already using drone technology, and it’s only a matter of time before many agencies in Rhode Island are, too.”

Technology available in toy stores

Last year’s “60 Minutes” piece about Amazon.com testing a drone delivery system woke most Americans up to the reality of drone technology. Most toy stores now sell radio-controlled helicopters with video cameras attached for around $30.

They’re easy to fly and take surprisingly good video and still shots. Those willing to drop around $500 can order a radio-controlled Blade Quadcopter with GPS and a GoPro HD digital camera.

Supporters of the drone legislation reason that if this technology is so easily acquired and used by the public, law enforcement may not be far behind.

“We ought to establish the ground rules proactively, because without limits, we’re leaving the door open to the potential for serious invasions of privacy,” Rep. Tanzi said.

Drone usage would follow wiretapping regulations

The legislation (2014-H 7170) would require public hearings before law enforcement agencies could acquire drones, as well as assent from the applicable city or town council for municipal departments and the governor for state agencies. If permitted, drone usage would follow existing regulations for wiretapping a phone. Each individual use of a drone by a law-enforcement agency for investigation of criminal or civil matters or for any intelligence-gathering purpose would require the involvement of the attorney general’s office, which would have to get approval from Superior Court on the agency’s behalf.

(Photo: H. Michael Miley, Flickr)

To get that approval, the agency would have to detail exactly who is the target and why, as well as where and when the drone is to be used. The agency would also be required to say whether other investigative methods have been attempted and failed or why they reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried, or why they might be too dangerous. A contingency would be available for emergencies to assist someone if his or her life or safety is in danger.

The bill is one of many that are cropping up around the country as drone technology becomes more accessible.

Recently, Utah Senator Howard Stephenson introduced Senate Bill 167, a measure to establish “provisions for the appropriate use of unmanned aerial vehicles by government entities.” The bill explicitly forbids state agents from operating a drone, except in a lengthy list of exceptional situations that includes emergency and instances of consent.

ACLU supports bill

Here in Rhode Island, the bill is getting early support from the ACLU.

“We strongly support this legislation. We think it’s truly critical to have safeguards in place before police start purchasing and using these intrusive devices. It’s only a matter of time,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

“The really good thing about the bill is that it’s something that should feel very comfortable to law enforcement. Most of it [the bill] is taken directly from the state’s wiretaps law. The procedures are ones that law enforcement has been using for decades.”


Related Slideshow: Top 10 Blizzards in RI History

Prev Next

10. Blizzard of 2010

Max Accumulation: Approximately 13"

December 26-27, 2010

This winter storm brought more than a foot of snow to several parts of Rhode Island, including 13 inches in Woonsocket.

Prev Next

9. Blizzard of 2003

Max Accumulation: Approximately 15"

February 14-19, 2013

Know as the President’s Day Storm II, this blizzard brought roughly 15 inches to Ocean State.

Prev Next

8. Blizzard of 2009

Max Accumulation: Approximately 16"

December 16-20, 2009

Blizzard warnings were in effect in southern Rhode Island when this storm hit just before Christmas 2009.

Prev Next

7. April Fool's Day Blizzard

Max Accumulation: Approximately 18"

March 30 to April 1, 1997

This blizzard was no joke when it dropped 18 inches of snow in Providence.

Prev Next

6. 1969 Nor’easter

Max Accumulation: Approximately 20"

February 8-10, 1969

This storm blanketed many parts of Rhode Island with upwards of 20 inches of snow.

Prev Next

5. Great Blizzard of 1888

Max Accumulation: Approximately 20"

March 11-14, 1888

One of the most severe recorded blizzards in the history of the United States, this superstorm dumped 20 inches in Kingston.

Prev Next

4. Blizzard of 1996

Max Accumulation: Approximately 23"

Jan. 6-10, 1996

One of two blizzards to receive an “extreme” rating on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale, this storm blanketing parts of Rhode Island with upwards of 23 inches of snow.

Prev Next

3. Blizzard of 2005

Max Accumulation: Approximately 23.5"

January 20-23, 2005

This three-day storm delivered more nearly two feet of snow to some parts of Rhode Island.

Prev Next

2. Winter Storm Nemo

Max Accumulation: Approximately 24"

February 7-18, 2013

About 180,000 RI homes and businesses lost power during this powerful blizzard.

Prev Next

1. Blizzard of 1978

Max Accumulation: Approximately 38"

February 5-7, 1978

This historic nor’easter, which claimed the lives of 26 Rhode Islanders, brought a record-breaking 27.6 inches of snow to Providence and 38 inches to Woonsocket.


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