Group reviews Alaska's drone use

Legislative task force created in response to worries about spying

ANCHORAGE — A group appointed by the Alaska Legislature to review drone use and address privacy concerns will report back to lawmakers in mid-January.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Legislative Task Force met Thursday in Anchorage.

Freshman Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, the group’s chairwoman, said she urged creation of the group in response to residents worried about spying by unmanned aircraft, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Drones used in the state are far different than the armed Predators used by the military overseas that critics say have killed civilians.

“We are talking about the smaller, lighter type that we hope to see in use in Alaska, for beneficial uses,” Hughes said.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has experimented with unmanned aircraft for years. The university has used unmanned aircraft to map wildfires, count Steller sea lions, and in Idaho, to assess salmon nests.

Private citizens also are using them. Amazon is selling thousands, the task force was told. People can fly the unmanned aircraft with almost no government oversight if it’s for recreation and not a commercial purpose, said Ro Bailey, deputy director of UAF’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.

Alaska State Troopers expect to begin using an unmanned aircraft. Lt. Steven Adams, a task force member, said troopers will receive a $70,000 Aeryon Scout donated by the National Institute of Justice. It’s targeted for highway crash investigations, Adams said, producing digital pictures that troopers can use to make measurements that now must be done manually.

Those measurements can block highways for hours, he said.

Troopers also could use the drone to find lost people and to map oil spills, Adams said.

Law enforcement agencies likely would need a search warrant to collect evidence in a criminal investigation with a drone, said Kathleen Strasbaugh, a legislative lawyer. The privacy provision in the Alaska Constitution offers residents protections, she said.

Hughes suggested a citizens panel could oversee missions in Alaska. Adams and others in the group said they did not believe that would be practical.

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