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Unmanned Aircraft Systems discussed in Bismarck

The 2013 Legislative Assembly debated and acted upon House Bill 1373 relating to the use of unmanned aircraft systems within North Dakota. The bill was defeated on the floor of the Senate. Several groups, including law enforcement, opposed the bill based on the belief the language would have created a law that was too restrictive and did not take into account privacy and public safety protections currently in place.

The most common type of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) used by public safety agencies and industry are considered small UAS systems. Aircraft in this category weigh between four and 25 pounds. Most  sUAS used by law enforcement are dependent upon battery power restricting the flight time to less than an hour with most flights lasting only a few minutes. The operational range is limited to approximately one mile and at an altitude up to 1000 feet. The sUAS may be equipped with one or more types of cameras which capture still photographs; video or wirelessly feed video back to the operator.

Before an agency can use a sUAS the agency must receive a certification of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has set specific rules for sUAS program implementation. The operator must be licensed by the FAA and operate the aircraft with the assistance of a spotter; and must maintain visual contact with the aircraft. The area of operation is restricted based on several factors including proximity to airports and flight paths for manned aircraft and some populated areas. FAA rules forbid weapons to be carried on a sUAS. Professional organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police are also developing implementation guidelines for their members.

Privacy concerns and the use of sUAS have been debated in many different forums. The 4th Amendment and established case law protects a person from unreasonable search and seizure. The use of a sUAS and the information collected by the government must be in adherence to the same rules used to otherwise collect information. The government is allowed to collect information while in areas open to the public without the requirement of having a search warrant. With few exceptions, the government may not go into private places without establishing cause to enter those areas and securing a warrant to be there. The sUAS does not give the government special abilities or authorities to violate a person’s privacy protections.

sUAS can be used for a wide variety of purposes by both government and industry. Electrical providers and pipeline operators can fly distribution line routes to monitor safety and operations. Private and government agencies involved with agricultural production can survey an area’s topography, evaluate soil conditions and monitor crop production. Emergency personnel can conduct pre-event surveys to develop response plans or fly over a major incident to conduct an assessment and deploy resources to combat fires, floods or a hazardous material release. Law enforcement can use sUAS to conduct search and rescue operations, locating wanted persons and gather information about criminal activities. sUAS may be used anywhere it would be unsafe to place a human being.

Unmanned aircraft systems are relatively new within the civil sector. Soon they may be transporting our air cargo and someday may replace all manned flight. The full potential has not been realized.

Reitan is the assistant West Fargo police chief