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BOB ROST: Lawmakers' overreaction could harm public safety

GRAND FORKS -- We must have missed something. Has there been a sudden rash of privacy invasions in North Dakota involving unmanned aircraft systems, the devices the media has dubbed "drones"?...

Bob Rost

GRAND FORKS -- We must have missed something. Has there been a sudden rash of privacy invasions in North Dakota involving unmanned aircraft systems, the devices the media has dubbed "drones"?

House Bill 1373 would lead one to believe that this is the case.

HB 1373 has passed the House and now is being reviewed by the North Dakota Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill imposes unnecessary reporting requirements on law enforcement, fails to identify the agency responsible for monitoring compliance and will discourage North Dakota law enforcement agencies from establishing UAS units.

The end result will be that North Dakotans are deprived of a valuable technological resource that could help find lost persons, monitor disasters and catch dangerous criminals.

The privacy protection detailed in HB 1373 already exists. This important protection was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court 99 years ago in the case of Weeks v. United States and later applied to all states in Mapp v. Ohio.


The concept is called the "exclusionary rule" and prohibits the admission of illegally obtained evidence in a criminal trial.

The exclusionary rule places the question of evidence admissibility before the courts, the branch of government our founding fathers charged with the responsibility of deciding such important matters.

HB 1373 clearly is focused on law enforcement use of UAS and almost completely ignores the significant risks of privacy infringements by non-law enforcement entities such as the news media or the voyeuristic neighbor who enjoys flying his UAS over others' homes.

The true risk of invasion of privacy rests with private individuals, who are not subject to either the proposed law, Federal Aviation Administration regulations or well-developed policies and procedures.

The bill dictates that search warrants permitting use of UAS may be issued only in criminal investigations. This requirement would prohibit a state or local agency from getting a search warrant to conduct an administrative investigation focused on suspicion of an administrative violation such as dumping toxins into our beautiful North Dakota lakes and rivers. Why?

An unprecedented restriction

For Congress or a state Legislature to pass legislation to try to control a technology that still is maturing and growing is premature and ill-advised. It also is unprecedented in any other technology, including telephones and computers.

Each of those was allowed to mature before the enactment of privacy legislation. And, such legislation was enacted only when privacy problems related to those technologies arose.


Enacting UAS-related privacy legislation will have a chilling effect on the development of UAS technology. Slowing the development of UAS technology will deprive North Dakotans of the significant public safety missions that UAS can perform.

The reality is that only two law enforcement agencies in North Dakota -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department -- have received authorization from the FAA to operate unmanned aircraft systems.

I cannot address U.S. Customs and Border Protection policies. But as sheriff of Grand Forks County, I can summarize our department's policies and procedures related to UAS.

The department's UAS Unit is a collaborative research effort with UND and two UAS manufacturers, Aerovironment and Draganfly Innovations.

The project's goals are to determine if UAS can be used effectively in public safety missions.

The unit is subject to the sheriff department's UAS Unit Policy and Procedures Manual, which dictates strict safety and privacy protections.

The department intends to use UAS for essential public safety missions such as searching for lost people, assessing post-disaster damage, photographing accident and crime scenes and searching for dangerous criminals.

There are no plans to use the aircraft for covert surveillances. In fact, our unmanned aircrafts' limited flight times and line-of-sight limitations make them very poor platforms for that type of mission.


In addition, our UAS operations also must comply with many FAA requirements, including one that makes us fly at or below 400 feet and within line-of-sight of the UAS pilot. These requirements effectively limit UAS flights to within ½ mile of the operator.

One final check and balance is the review of all UAS research project missions by UND's UAS Research Compliance Committee. This committee's 15 members represent UND faculty and administrators and local government, public safety agencies and residents. The committee is charged with applying community standards and values when evaluating all UND UAS research projects.

No UAS mission is launched unless it has been pre-approved by the committee.

Privacy rules already apply

An interesting aspect of UAS operations is the need to comply with all of the previously listed privacy requirements. If the sheriff's department had chosen to buy a small manned aircraft, none of those requirements would apply.

In fact, anyone is free to fly over almost any location and make observations from a manned aircraft.

In short, government agencies' UAS already are subject to much more scrutiny than are those same agencies' manned aircraft.

In his recent column on HB 1373, UND Assistant Professor Steven Morrison makes some seriously misleading statements ("N.D. bill strikes right balance on drones," Page A4, March 8).


Morrison says that "Drones are, essentially, highly sophisticated remote control aircraft. They range in size from the largest military drones like the Predator down to drones that look like a mosquito." In fact, most small UAS have about the same sophistication as a RC model aircraft bought from a hobby store, and none are as small as a mosquito.

Later in the column, Morrison says small UAS payloads can carry "small weapons." It is this type of unfounded and sensationalized statement that causes the public concern. Again, the reality is that small UAS are woefully inadequate platforms for weapons. No law enforcement agency currently is arming small UAS; and in the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department, arming of our UAS is expressly prohibited by our department's policies and procedures.

If law enforcement agencies wished to arm aircraft, wouldn't the more than 200 local and state law enforcement agencies that use manned aircraft have armed them?

Again, the reality is that there are no non-federal U.S. law enforcement agencies operating armed aircraft, unmanned or manned. And no agency has expressed a plan to do so in the future.

Small UAS have a yet to be determined number of uses in both humanitarian and law enforcement missions. North Dakota is positioned to be a leader in this exciting new field.

But by passing laws that limit the use of UAS, lawmakers are trying to fix something that isn't broken. That sends the wrong message to the FAA, which will, in the near future, be reviewing North Dakota's proposal to be selected as one of six UAS national test sites.

Retiring HB 1373 and creating a legislative study group to research UAS is a much more logical and measured approach.

Rost is sheriff of Grand Forks County.

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