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N.C. Opinions: Asheville

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Enact N.C. drone rules

From an editorial in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Tuesday:

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, have great potential both for good and for bad. North Carolina needs a regulatory system that is strict where it must be and flexible otherwise.

Drones can assess damage from natural disaster at far less cost than entailed from the use of manned aircraft. They can spot disease infestations in crops. They also, if misused, can spy on individuals in what those individuals thought was the privacy of their homes. Think Big Brother in the sky.

Wisely, North Carolina put a moratorium on the use of drones while issues are worked out. The issues now are well enough defined that it’s time to move on with a regulatory framework.

Drone technology is evolving steadily, so the system needs to be sufficiently flexible to adjust to changing circumstances. There is one point, however, on which it must be rigid: no surveillance of individuals without a search warrant.

“As more and more law enforcement and government agencies express an interest in drones, we think it’s imperative that North Carolina, like almost a dozen other states, makes sure that privacy is protected,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the North Carolina ACLU. Her agency supports a warrant requirement for surveillance.

The beauty of the U.S. Constitution is its flexibility. Principles were set out in terms sufficiently general that they can be reinterpreted as times and public opinion change. That same flexibility should be used by the General Assembly in crafting a framework that presumably will give a governance board power to approve or deny requests for drone use by governmental agencies. That board also could consider penalties for violation of its rules.

The rules should be specific enough so applicants know what they can and cannot do, but flexible enough so the rules do not have to be rewritten every time there is a technological advance.

Yes, a drone program will cost money. The House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) estimates the spending at more than $550,000 a year for operations and some $850,000 in startup costs.

But, that is small change in the context of a $20 billion state budget. More importantly, it is money well spent. Setting up a regulatory program shows that North Carolina is addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by drones.

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