Oklahoma Delves into State Drone Laws: Where to Go from Here?

Testimony presented yesterday on an interim study on drones gave members of Oklahoma’s Senate Public Safety Committee an opportunity to better understand unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) when they consider possible state policy on the use of the technology.

The study was requested by State Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, who said it was important to take into account privacy concerns, constitutional questions and the need to balance those with public safety issues and the potential for economic development in the state, according to a news release from the Oklahoma Senate.

“I’ve been studying this issue for months, and I am increasingly aware of the complexities involved,” he said. “We have laws on the books meant to address privacy concerns, including laws against trespassing, but now we have to think in new terms; aerial trespassing is a phrase we heard used today. I think this is a first step toward ensuring we take a comprehensive look at the issues and the dynamics involved.”

Stephen Henderson, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, acknowledged the complexities faced by policymakers. He said though the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets the policy on airspace, privacy concerns were not something that they’ve addressed.

“Do we need privacy laws? Like never before,” Henderson said, while acknowledging that privacy rights sometimes conflict with other constitutional rights, such as free speech and press. “This is not easy, and for the most part, the law is simply not yet declared. Over the last decade … courts have begun to articulate a constitutional right to record, but so far, it’s been limited to the recording of police in the public performance of their duties, which is the easiest case. And it’s not even yet considered that as to recording from the air.”

Henderson presented a range of possible public policy approaches, some giving greater emphasis to privacy concerns versus first amendment concerns. He said the most restrictive legislation, a ban of all non-consensual drone flight, would be the most likely to be struck down.

George Geissler, state forestry director of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, told committee members how drones are being used to support their mission – from determining numbers and species of trees to using drones to help prevent and fight wildfires. One problem has been the use of drones by the media to get pictures of those fires.

“Let’s face it, folks: Fire is a really cool visual image, so there’s all the rage to go ahead and get pictures of that,” Geissler said. He explained the problem is that UAS can pose a danger to helicopters involved in firefighting efforts.

Chris Merideth from Farmers Insurance talked about the use of drones in helping assess disaster areas. Other speakers included Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission; Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma American Civil Liberties Union; James Grimsley, vice president of Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma; and Joe Hartpence of Eagle Vision Drones.

“It is important to address issues that are very real concerns here in Oklahoma, such as public safety and privacy, but also taking into account the potential benefits for our state,” Sen. Simpson added. “As we look at potential legislation, we need to proceed thoughtfully and carefully.”


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