NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers are preparing to take up a measure that seeks to restrict police agencies in the state from using unmanned drone aircraft and the sponsor is someone with experience piloting drones.
It’s a hot topic both in Congress and on the state levels as the technology has rapidly outpaced regulations on the use of remotely piloted aircraft domestically. Currently, Tennessee law enforcement agencies are using drones only rarely.
Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, is sponsoring the bill that is scheduled to be considered in a House civil justice subcommittee today.
The military has relied heavily on drones overseas, which Van Huss experienced firsthand as a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently in the Marine Corps Reserves.
“I have actually piloted a drone myself in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Not one of those $7 million drones, but technically a surveillance drone.”
He admits that the technology has been a valuable tool on the battlefield, but he doesn’t want to see that same technology used to target Americans.
“They are very useful against the bad guys and I don’t want them to be very useful against the good guys, American citizens,” Van Huss said.
The bill, called the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,” prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence or other information, except in certain cases, such as to counter a terrorist attack, if a judge signs a search warrant authorizing the use of a drone or if police believe there is imminent danger to life.
The bill would also keep evidence collected in violation of the bill from being used in criminal prosecutions.
Few law enforcement agencies in the state actually possess or use the technology currently, although police agencies have argued that drones can be a useful and cost effective alternative when using personnel would be dangerous or timely.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has contracted out the use of drones for two missing persons cases in recent years, but the agency does not actually own drones, spokeswoman Kristin Helm said.
Helm explained that a drone was used to assist in locating the body of Gail Palmgren, a woman from Signal Mountain who had been missing for months before her remains were located in a densely wooded mountainside. They used the drone to map out an area where investigators found her crashed vehicle and her remains.
While the drone alone didn’t discover the remains, it did help investigators narrow the search to a smaller area and saved time and money, Helm said.
Helm said the bill may be too limiting to law enforcement in its current wording. “We would want there to be more exceptions for law enforcement,” Helm said.
Metro Nashville Police Department has purchased drones, but they are not currently in use as the department develops policies for them. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office requested funding from the county commission to purchase drones last year, but the vote was delayed after concerns were raised about their potential for misuse.
Middle Tennessee State University is also developing an educational program that would train students on how to operate drones, but their widespread use is a few years away, said Terry Dorris, the interim director of the unmanned aircraft systems program.
Dorris called it premature for the General Assembly to place limits on drones when they are not regularly used yet by police agencies. He said many agencies and universities are waiting on Federal Aviation Administration regulations on how and where these drones can be used.
“They are pre-empting the guidelines by saying, ‘We don’t want the police force to have these and fly over my place and look in my back door,”’ Dorris said. “They are doing this with legislation before it has even taken place.”
He said he understands the public’s concern of unwarranted surveillance and privacy concerns, but he said there are legitimate and beneficial uses for remotely piloted aircraft, such as monitoring or assessing wildfires, search and rescue operations or monitoring federal border areas.