By Steffanie Atkins
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Gov. Bob McDonnell on Monday proposed amending legislation to put a moratorium on the use of drone technology in Virginia until 2015.
McDonnell’s suggested amendments to House Bill 2012 and Senate Bill 1331 would allow for drone research at college and universities and would let law enforcement officials use drones for certain tasks, such as search and rescue.
These amendments “will allow law enforcement officials to use this developing technology to protect public safety while respecting individual rights of citizens and their expectations of privacy,” Gov. McDonnell’s press secretary, Jeff Caldwell, said in a statement to reporters.
The General Assembly will vote on McDonnell’s proposed amendments when it reconvenes for a one-day session next Wednesday. HB 2012 and SB 1331 were among more than 800 bills passed by legislators earlier this year. McDonnell had to veto or sign the measures by midnight Monday.
HB 2012 was introduced by Delegate Benjamin Cline, R-Rockbridge. As passed by the House and Senate, it stated, “No state or local agency or organization having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations … shall utilize an unmanned aircraft system before July 1, 2015.”
Senate Bill 1331, sponsored by Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, passed with identical language. Both bills allowed drones only in certain emergency situations, such as Amber Alerts (for missing children), Senior Alerts and search-and-rescue operations.
McDonnell’s recommendations elaborated on when drones could be used during the moratorium.
For instance, he said unmanned aircraft could be deployed “for the purpose of a search or rescue operation where use of an unmanned aircraft system is determined to be necessary to alleviate an immediate danger to any person, or for training exercises related to such uses.”
McDonnell also added this exception: “Nothing herein shall prohibit use of unmanned aircraft systems solely for research and development purposes by institutions of higher education and other research organizations or institutions.”
Both SB 1331 and HB 2012 stated, “In no case may a weaponized unmanned aircraft system be deployed or its use facilitated by a state or local agency in Virginia.” McDonnell left that wording in the law.
In the absence of a state law, local governments in Virginia have taken measures regarding drones into their own hands.
In February, the Charlottesville City Council voted 3-2 to declare the city a “drone-free zone.” Charlottesville was the first city in the country to pass such a resolution.
Last August, the Russell County Sherriff’s Department purchased two drones for $600. The units were bought for search and rescue purposes but have not been used yet. Even under the proposed moratorium, Russell County law enforcement officials may be able to use their drones for search rescue operations when it is dangerous for first responders to get to a particular area.
Last Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sent a letter to McDonnell urging him to sign the bills without any amendments. The group’s main concern is “wide scale and intrusive surveillance of our persons, homes, farms and businesses using unmanned aerial vehicles or systems.”
In a press release, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said, “Virginia needs time to develop sensible, commonplace restrictions that balance our freedoms with the benefits of drone technology.”
On the Web
The letter that the ACLU of Virginia sent to Gov. Bob McDonnell is at:
Steffanie Atkins’ Storify about drones in Virginia is at: