Unmanned aircraft systems - or drones, as they are commonly referred to - have become a hot topic from celebrities to farmers. Recently, AB-1327, a bill, focused on prohibiting certain actions relating to unmanned aircraft systems, was passed by the California legislature and is now on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature or veto.
The bill generally prohibits public agencies from unmanned aircraft systems, or contracting for the use of unmanned aircraft systems, with certain exceptions applicable to law enforcement agencies and in certain other cases, including when the use or operation of the unmanned aircraft system achieves the core mission of the agency and the purpose is unrelated to the gathering of criminal intelligence. In addition, if signed into law, the bill will require the provision of reasonable public notice by public agencies intending to deploy such unmanned aircraft systems, and require images, footage, or data obtained through the use of an unmanned aircraft system under these provisions to be permanently destroyed within one year (except as specified). Also among the bill’s prohibitions is the dissemination of images, footage, or data obtained through the use of an unmanned aircraft system outside the collecting public agency, except as specified, and equipping or arming an unmanned aircraft system with a weapon or other device that may be carried by or launched from an unmanned aircraft system and that is intended to cause bodily injury or death, or damage to, or the destruction of, real or personal property.
The bill further provides that specified surveillance restrictions on electronic devices apply to the use or operation of an unmanned aircraft system by a public agency. The provisions of the bill will be applicable to all public and private entities when contracting with a public agency for the use of an unmanned aircraft system.
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the use of drones. Private parties are severely limited by the FAA’s regulations and may only use drones for “hobby” purposes. California’s AB-1327 seems to be aimed at the FAA’s defined current uses of drones, but the bill leaves many unanswered questions. For example, will data (e.g., photos, video footage, etc.) obtained by drones be specifically exempted from the Public Records Act? If not, what does that mean for privacy protection? Also, why does this bill apply only to public agencies and private parties that contract with agencies? Questions continue to exist regarding purely private operations.
While the topic has become a media favorite arising from the potential use of drones by paparazzi and invasion of privacy issues, drones also are emerging as an extremely useful tool in certain industries, such as agriculture and energy development. Farmers and developers still must abide by the FAA’s regulations on drone use, but final federal regulations on commercial use of drones are pending. While the FAA continues to work through issuing regulations for commercial and private use, the approach of state legislatures to the private industry use of drones, such as in the agricultural and energy sectors, continues to unfold.
Stoel Rives will continue to monitor legislative and regulatory activities as more issues emerge in this dynamic arena.
The Governor has until September 30 to sign or veto AB-1327.