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Utah takes a step in fighting the coming drone wars

Published: Wednesday, April 9 2014 11:00 a.m. MDT

Rarely does new technology force us to come to a full stop at the intersection of civil rights, efficiency and convenience.

Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press

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You knew it was just a matter of time.

Earlier this month in Australia, a runner in a triathlon was hit in the head by a drone that fell from the sky.

What’s worse, according to Cnet.com, is that the drone’s operator, who was trying to film the event, claims someone nearby hijacked the thing, possibly with a cellphone.

And there, in a nutshell, is the embodiment of the procedural, ethical and technological challenges facing the new world of flying things.

Utah has taken the first step toward bringing order to the brewing chaos in the skies. Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law last week that keeps police from using any “unmanned aerial vehicle” without a warrant. It also regulates the type of data a police department can collect and store from such vehicles and for how long.

It’s a good move, especially as police departments nationwide become more militant, but, as usual, the political process lags a bit behind what’s really going on out there.

It’s been three years since the now-former police chief in Ogden, Jon Greiner, asked the FAA for permission to use an unmanned blimp to fly a set route each night, keeping watch over the city for suspicious activity. The FAA rejected that request saying, according to USNews.com, the airship would have posed an “unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System.”

Had Ogden wanted to do a similar thing today, the new law would have stopped it. But, of course, Amazon is talking about toying with drones that deliver packages, restaurants are talking about drones that deliver food, Facebook is talking about using drones to build a wireless cloud that keeps us all connected, and on and on. Who will keep all these things from colliding above our heads? How many more triathletes will have to get bonked? Who will stop your neighbor from taking photos from above, just for fun?

Unfortunately, the FAA not only lags behind this issue, it has thrown in some ridiculous decisions for good measure. In February, it issued a cease and desist order to a Texas group that uses drones to search for people missing in the desert.

The Wall Street Journal said the FAA claims it has to limit drones to certain public entities in the name of safety. It hopes to come out with new rules about all this by the end of 2015, but, realistically, it might be later.

Meanwhile, just make sure you don’t get lost in the Texas desert.

Not surprisingly, the Texas group has hired a lawyer who issued a terse letter to the FAA giving it 30 days to rescind the order or face legal action.

Meanwhile, an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board overturned an FAA fine in another case, saying the agency has no enforceable rule for drones. Government and the courts seem almost as confused as the skies are about to become.

Rarely does new technology force us to come to a full stop at the intersection of civil rights, efficiency and convenience. Just because drones are a great way to stop crime and deliver pizza doesn’t mean a free society ought to let them zip around without restrictions. But by the same token, government needs to carefully consider whether it can keep private companies and citizens from using them without interfering with commerce or basic freedoms.

The Utah Legislature and Herbert provided a good first step. Other states haven’t been as decisive. But it may be wise for Utah lawmakers to keep working on ways to preserve freedom and safety up above.

One thing is sure, the skies aren’t going to get any quieter. That was pretty much decided a few days ago when the people of Deer Trail, Colo., voted overwhelmingly to reject a plan to let people blast unmanned aircraft out of the air. If rural Americans who, one would expect, are normally suspicious of government won’t reject drones, there is little left to stop their proliferation.

From now on, triathletes had better learn to run, bike and swim with one eye on the sky.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, jayevensen.com.

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