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Legislators ponder police drone usage

Posted: February 13, 2014 - 1:17am

A House of Representatives committee discussed a bill Wednesday that would outline the policies governing police usage of unmanned aircraft over Alaska.

Representatives on the House Judiciary Committee took no action on HB255, which is sponsored by Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, and several others.

The bill is the result of work done by the Legislative Task Force on Unmanned Aircraft Systems — an entity established by HCR6 last year to develop policies for drone usage in Alaska, Hughes said.

The first component of the bill encourages the University of Alaska to develop a training program for unmanned aerial system operators, and the second — the majority of the bill — outlines the policies that would dictate police usage of the system.

“Unmanned aircrafts is an emerging technology,” Hughes said. “We think it’s important that we harness it for good, and, at the same time, really (are mindful of) privacy issues.”

The bill prohibits the use of drones by law enforcement unless a series of criteria are met. Two such criteria include that only trained individuals can operate the aircraft, and all the specifics of each flight must be recorded.

The proposal also stipulates that each flight must be for a public purpose, and the responsible agency must notify the public of flights, except in situations were notification could endanger a life.

Lieutenant Steven Adams with the Department of Public Safety told the committee that some of the aircrafts’ purposes will be sending drones to gather information from situations too dangerous for manned aircraft.

“We wouldn’t want to fly a manned aircraft to look at something we think is explosive,” Adams said of using a drone to evaluation a terrorist situation or something similar.

He added that the department also plans to use the aircraft for things like search and rescue missions, amber alert tracking and mapping serious traffic accidents.

Law enforcement agencies seeking to employ the drones will have to adopt a set of polices for their specific use, and the public has to be involved in the development of such policies.

“Unmanned aircraft are becoming more affordable, so it is something that potentially a local law enforcement agency might decide at some point to use,” Hughes said. “We are not aware of any of that at this time.”

The aircraft may be used in criminal investigations if a search warrant is obtained, or if a judicially recognized exception to needing a warrant applies.

The bill includes language that prohibits images from the drones from being retained unless the images are part of an investigation, being used for training or required to be kept by another law.

State archivist Dean Dawson told lawmakers Wednesday that prohibiting the retention of some images could conflict with current state records law.

“The images would constitute state records material,” Dawson said. “If these images are used as evidence, they would need to be retained for a certain amount of time.”

The FAA announced in late December that Alaska was one of six states selected as a testing site for drones. The University of Alaska was named a test site operator and will oversee testing in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon.

The announcement was part of a bill passed by Congress that requires the national skies to be open to civil and commercial unmanned aircraft by the end of next year.

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 586-1821 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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