Massachusetts Officials Want to Regulate Drone Use

The unmanned aircrafts could be grounded unless users abide by strict rules.

State Senator Bob Hedlund isn’t always up to date with the latest gadgets—he doesn’t even have an E-Z Pass to scoot him through state tolls.

But when it comes to advanced technological inventions, like unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, he has a bird’s eye view of everything that’s going on.

Later this month a bill filed by Hedlund to restrict the use of drones will go before the legislature’s Committee on Transportation on Beacon Hill. The purpose of the proposal, according Hedlund, is to “protect peoples’ liberties” and “keep pace” with the upgrades police officials want to bring into play when conducting an investigation.

“We are in uncharted territory. It’s new technology; it’s kind of like the Wild West in terms of what can be done from a law enforcement perspective at this point,” Hedlund said. “The [Federal Aviation Administration] is setting up guidelines and creating airspace, which will address some commercial activity, but this concentrates on the law enforcement and privacy side of the issue.”

The proposed legislation, which Hedlund compiled by working closely with the American Civil Liberties Union, is multifaceted. For starters, Hedlund doesn’t want any unmanned aerial vehicles to be equipped with weapons. If a city or town in Massachusetts were to buy a drone to conduct an investigation, he would also want the process to be open and transparent, and require the approval of a governing board, like Aldermen or City Council members.

According to the wording in the bill, it would become “unlawful for a government entity or official to operate” a drone under any circumstances, unless it’s to execute a warrant or collect data on a subject after getting approval from the courts.

The bill would also prohibit data collection about lawful peaceful activity and require officials to delete any information accidentally collected on anyone other than an intended subject.

Despite the precise guidelines he would like to see in place, Hedlund isn’t completely against police turning to drones for tactical purposes. “They should be able to use them under the right circumstances. I think it’s under the same category of entering someone’s house, there should be reasonable suspicion, and court action,” said Hedlund.

The Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council, a regional SWAT team of more than 40 police departments, has already asked the FAA for permission to use drones during an investigation in parts of Massachusetts, which is why Hedlund and the ACLU want to act fast. “Let’s deal with these issues before they get out of hand. Now is the time to keep friendly skies over Massachusetts and protect our privacy from surveillance drones,” the ACLU said in a statement on their website regarding the bill.

While Hedlund’s legislation would cover statewide use of drones, he said there’s not much he could do about federal agencies turning to the unmanned aerial vehicles when conducting an investigation in Massachusetts.

Lucky for the Bay State, however, Congressman Ed Markey has been heading his own battle against the robotic data collectors, and has been trying to formulate rules that would also limit the use of drones on a national level. Last month, after Amazon announced that it had future plans to employ drones as a means to deliver small goods to homes nearby their facilities, Markey called for the FAA to “deliver privacy protections for the American public.”

“Before our skies teem with commercial drones, clear rules must be set that protect the privacy and safety of the public,” said Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Markey also introduced legislation known as the “Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act” back in November.