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Drone debate: Privacy vs. economic opportunity

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Senate will decide the fate of a bill that could protect residents from the surveillance of unmanned aircraft, but some say it will harm the chances for a test site for drones near Grand Forks.

Unmanned aircraft system

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Senate will decide the fate of a bill that could protect residents from the surveillance of unmanned aircraft, but some say it will harm the chances for a test site for drones near Grand Forks.

A Senate committee Wednesday came down on the side of individual privacy after the House sided with safety and the test site.

Republican Rep. Curt Kreun of Grand Forks said House Bill 1373, which would require a search warrant to use a drone for surveillance on a private citizen, would send the wrong message as the University of North Dakota seeks to become one of six national drone test sites.

"The opportunity is too great a risk. Negative publicity can hurt this application," he said. "It could cost North Dakota opportunity and jobs."

But some say the economic development the test site could bring does not trump an individual's privacy and protection from unreasonable search and seizures under the U.S. Constitution.


"If drone companies move to North Dakota, we need to have some rules on the ground," said Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, a co-sponsor of the bill.

The House sent the bill to the Senate with a 60-31 vote Tuesday. But the Senate Judiciary Committee gave it a 6-1 do not pass recommendation Wednesday morning. It will be up for a floor vote in the Senate in the next few days.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said the bill is crafted so it would not infringe on UND's use and exploration of unmanned aircraft. The school is competing against 81 organizations from 26 states to be one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft.

A section of the bill addresses the issue: "This act may not be construed to limit, constrain, or adversely impact testing and operations of a state test range under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012."

"This would help us in our chance of becoming one of the six test sites," Becker said, adding that he couldn't find information in the test site application requirements that would make North Dakota less likely to be chosen.

The federal application included a provision that asked an applicant to list any local or state limitations that would apply to drone research.

The provision says applicants that don't have any laws limiting aircraft operations would be scored highest.

If there are limitations, an applicant would receive the highest score if it completely addresses the current and potential limitations and lays out how they will not affect the test site operations.


But applicants that address potential limitations and disclose any restrictions or limitations would receive a lower score.

Kreun said the test site is a large project that would draw many businesses and people to the state, and he doesn't want to risk it.

"It's a full U.S. test site," he said. "It becomes a program for several industries and business to be here to accommodate this type of test site."

Michael Moore, associate vice president for Intellectual Property Commercialization and Economic Development at UND, said a Grand Forks consortium of law enforcement, community members and research entities are already addressing the privacy issues.

He said any measure could hurt their viability as a test site.

"We're talking millions to set up a UAS center for research and the time and energy putting towards test site proposal," he said. "We're in a critical time now."

Becker said he recognizes the practical use of drones, but is concerned they may go too far. His bill includes exemptions to allow the use of drones within 25 miles of the Canadian border for law enforcement purposes. The bill also would exempt their use for exigent circumstances, defined as any time a law enforcement agency possesses a reasonable suspicion that without quick action, there is an imminent danger to life or bodily harm. Their use also would be exempted when protecting property and surveying environmental damage after a weather-related catastrophe.

"This is a situation we have a gray area in," Becker said Tuesday. "Should we allow drones to collect evidence then go get a search warrant, or should we respect our citizens' privacy and obtain a search warrant?


"They're a new way to intrude," he added.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple included $1 million in his executive budget to pursue the national designation and $4 million for operational costs to be appropriated only if North Dakota is selected to operate a test site.

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