Drone bills appear grounded this year in Minnesota Legislature

Drone
This is one of several small drones designed for use by law enforcement and first responders, taken during a practice session May 14, 2013 at University of North Dakota-Grand Forks, N.D.
Dan Gunderson/MPR News, file

It looks like the Minnesota Legislature will not pass comprehensive drone privacy legislation this year.

Bills to restrict drone use — from a broad ban on the use of unmanned aircraft, to specific restrictions on law enforcement use — and provide privacy protection have stalled in committee. Key lawmakers say they're already looking ahead to next year.

"Law enforcement had historically raised a lot of questions about these privacy concerns in the past," said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul. "That caused some legislators to say 'Hey, slow down let's take a longer look at this.' And I think that was the primary reason why."

Lesch sponsored legislation to require law enforcement to have a warrant before using a drone to watch private citizens. His and other bills in the House and Senate all stalled in committee.

While there's a slim chance some narrow unmanned aircraft legislation will pass this year, a comprehensive privacy package appears dead, Lesch said.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, agreed. He authored bills last session to restrict drone use. There's more interest this year, but no groundswell of support for privacy protections, he said.

"We need to get our arms around this up-and-coming technology and the concerns that will inevitably result," Nienow added.

In 2013, 43 state legislatures considered bills related to unmanned aircraft, and 13 states passed laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The issue might be more complicated by next year after the Federal Aviation Administration approves rules to allow the use of more small drones.

"When this happens — and that's not if, it's when this happens — we want to make sure that we've got proper boundaries for everyone's sake," Nienow said. Once drones are in use it might be harder to regulate them through legislation, he added.

Lesch expects more unmanned aircraft companies will be geared up to lobby against privacy rules by next year.

"And then there is the inevitability that when another year passes more and more agencies will decide, 'Hey, I want to use these drones,' and then any privacy legislation gets bogged down in a myriad of interested parties," he said.

Lesch wants lawmakers to discuss drone legislation in a House-Senate conference committee, even though those committees are designed to reconcile the differences between bills passed by both houses.

Nienow would like to see an interim working group set up to bring recommendations the next legislative session. He's also still hoping for some "foot in the door" legislation, a "baby step" forward to "set up for having the conversation again next year."

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