RICHMOND — Russell County Sheriff Steve Dye bought two unmanned remote-controlled aircraft last summer as a law enforcement tool he hoped might help find a missing child or track a dangerous suspect without endangering his deputies.
The devices are less than two feet long and weigh only a few pounds — a far cry from the much larger armed Predator drones the U.S. military uses to target suspected terrorists overseas. But Dye will not get to deploy his unmanned aircraft if the Virginia General Assembly passes a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement, except in certain emergencies, such as search-and-rescue operations.
By a vote of 83 to 16, the House passed a bill last week imposing the moratorium until regulations can be developed. The legislation is awaiting consideration in a Senate committee.
The bill comes as the federal government wrestles with the complex moral and ethical issues regarding the use of drones in other nations to kill those who pose a national security threat. If passed, Virginia’s statewide moratorium would be the first of its kind in the country.
“The public’s perception of what we’re talking about is very skewed right now,” said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “What law enforcement is looking to use . . . can be in the trunk of a police car, pulled out and put up in the sky.”
Other states also are considering regulating the technology, which is in increasing demand from law enforcement agencies that consider drones a potentially more efficient and safer way to find missing children, track dangerous suspects, or conduct surveillance to find marijuana fields.
“It just really bothered me that something that could have such an impact on officer safety, that could make our response to critical situations safer, more effective and quicker . . . would be barred,” Dye said.
Opponents view drones as an expansion of Big Brother and question whether police should be allowed to use the equipment to see and hear the activities of Americans without their knowledge or permission.
“We are at a point where all of us are about to sacrifice our privacy to this new technology,” said Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, who supports a moratorium. “We believe citizens want to be involved in the conversation.”
Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a sponsor of the legislation, said regulations are needed as the technology becomes cheaper and more widely available.
“There are thousands of unanswered questions here,” he said. “Just to dismiss these concerns does a real disservice about where we are going in this society.”
Dye said he bought his remote-controlled aircraft at a store for $300 each.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International sent a letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) recentlyasking him to oppose the moratorium. McDonnell said in a statement that he will consider the group’s concerns if a bill makes it to his desk.
The association said that in addition to the potential public safety benefits of drones, the technology could have an economic impact on the commonwealth.
Through legislation enacted in 2012, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a program to study how to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace over the next several years.
On Thursday, the FAA solicited proposals from state and local governments and universities seeking to become one of six sites for testing unmanned aircraft systems. The agency is expected to select the sites later this year.
Virginia is expected to put in a joint bid with Maryland and New Jersey to be one of the six test sites. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the governor, said that such a facility would not be affected by the proposed legislation.