CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Legislature is trying to find its way on balancing the public interests affected by unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was the most recent stop for debate over drones.
In their Monday afternoon discussion of Senate Bill 9, West Virginia lawmakers touched on issues of private property, policing, safety and how news media could use drones for their work without colliding directly with the rest of those issues.
Both houses of the Legislature passed a bill governing the use of drones last year, but the legislation died when it wasn’t communicated back to the Senate in time at the end of last year’s regular session.
So drones are back.
Likely with more questions and more interested parties than before.
Much of the regulation of drones is already done by the Federal Aviation Administration. That agency’s rules would remain the main ones governing drone technology.
But almost every state in the nation is considering aspects of what defines a drone and how they should interact with citizens and businesses. West Virginia is right there with them.
West Virginia’s bill, introduced by Senators Charles Trump and Glenn Jeffries, attempts to determine who can lawfully use a drone, set rules about how law enforcement can use drones and sets limits about flying drones over certain industrial facilities.
Much of the conversation in Monday’s Judiciary Committee meeting concerned the increasing use of drones by media organizations and how the First Amendment balances against the public’s expectation of privacy.
The bill would provide misdemeanor criminal penalties for images taken of a person without their permission if they have a reasonable expectation of privacy
“Shouldn’t we have a specific exemption that specifically says news gathering? Defined as taking images of current events?” asked Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison.
More questions arose about flying drones for news gathering purposes near industrial facilities where there could be safety concerns.
“It would be counsel’s understanding and belief that you can place some reasonable limits on news gathering, where the operation of the drone might cause danger. But as a general proposition they can do it,” said Tom Smith, counsel for the Judiciary Committee.
Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, wondered about the distinction between news organizations and regular citizens.
“Anyone can say I’m flying this drone and I’m planning on submitting pictures, let’s say to the Gazette, for this issue,” said Rucker, R-Jefferson.
The committee passed an amended version of the bill to the Senate floor.
After the meeting, Michele Crist, executive director of the West Virginia Broadcasters Association, said her organization wants its members to be able to use drones as a newsgathering tool without worrying about penalties beyond those in federal law.
“I think it’s important that they’re going to be able to use this type of technology to continue doing what they do every day,” Crist said. “This is just one other tool that we’ll put in our toolbox to use.”
Crist noted that stations are licensed already by the Federal Communications Commission and, in the case of drones, would also be regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. That agency requires training and licensing for those operating drones.
“We’re willing to comply and jump on that, but we want to do our business every day and not be obstructed in bringing the news to folks,” Crist said.
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said her organization is concerned about the safety of flying a drone too closely to industrial facilities.
“There’s been some gap in regulations with the FAA regarding industrial facilities and use of unmanned aircraft over such facilities and how that compromises critical infrastructure and then manufacturing facilities from a safety perspective,” McPhail said.
For example, she said, “An electric malfunction on a drone could create a spark in a flammable area in a manufacturing facility that could cause an explosion, compromise the safety of employees and, in some cases, the community.”