Some officials concerned over bill to restrict drone use

The Associated PressFebruary 21, 2013 

The state Department of Natural Resources wants to test the use of drones to combat wildfires this year.

But an official testified before senators Wednesday that a bill proposing strict regulations on the purchase and use of unmanned aerial vehicles could hinder the agency’s plans.

Deputy Supervisor Randy Acker, who oversees the state’s wildfire protection program, said the department has submitted an application to the Federal Aviation Administration to test out a drone during this year’s wildfire season.

“DNR sees tremendous potential to use unmanned aircraft more effectively in fighting wildfires and thereby allowing us to reduce suppression costs,” Acker said before the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Acker said the department uses helicopters to collect fire data, but those operations can’t always be safely carried out in heavy smoke or at night.

“It is under these conditions that we believe unmanned aircraft could prove in the future to be extremely valuable,” Acker said.

He added drones also would be cheaper than helicopter flights.

Republican and Democrat lawmakers are working on a proposal that would impose restrictive regulations on drones. They include a mandate that law enforcement agencies obtain approval from their respective legislative government before buying a drone.

The measure also would require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants and erase data collected if the surveillance target has done no criminal activity.

Proponents of the drone bill said they have worked out language allowing agencies like the Department of Natural Resources to obtain drones. But the agency’s concerns underlined other hesitations expressed about the measure, which has attracted bipartisan support.

It wasn’t immediately clear if department officials have reviewed the changes to the bill.

Earlier this month, the city of Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests. The city’s police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant.

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