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Originally published March 14, 2013 at 8:36 PM | Page modified March 15, 2013 at 10:44 AM

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After Boeing objects, lawmakers put drone bill on hold

A proposal to regulate the use of drone aircraft by public agencies stalled in the state Legislature this week after Boeing privately complained that the bill could hurt business.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — A proposal to regulate the use of drone aircraft by public agencies stalled in the state Legislature this week after Boeing privately complained the bill could hurt business.

Melinda McCrady, a spokeswoman for House Democratic leadership, said the decision to keep the bill from going to a floor vote before a key deadline Wednesday was meant to allow for a more comprehensive study of surveillance issues this summer.

State Rep. Jeff Morris, a Mount Vernon Democrat who chairs the House Technology and Economic Development Committee, will lead that study.

Morris said he will hold hearings on several different types of camera technologies in the hopes of proposing a package of bills next session.

He said Boeing lobbied against the bill because the company feared it could hurt its ambitions to manufacture and test drones for use by law-enforcement or other agencies. But, he said, he isn’t sure that affected the bill’s prospects.

The sponsor of the bill said he’s sure, though.

“This is all about profit,” said state Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee. “This is about profit over people’s rights.”

Boeing spokeswoman Sue Bradley said the company opposed the bill because it was not “sufficiently thorough and thoughtful.”

“We believe that as the technology matures, best practices and new understanding will emerge, and that it would be counterproductive to rush into regulating a burgeoning industry,” Bradley wrote in a statement.

If passed, House Bill 1771 would have required agencies using or buying drones to get approval from the Legislature or local governments. Also, the bill said drones could only be used with a warrant, in emergencies or if personal information was unlikely to be obtained.

Taylor said he introduced the bill as part of a nationwide push to regulate the technology. This year, lawmakers in 32 states have introduced legislation to restrict drone use. So far, none has made it into law.

Drones aren’t currently being used by any government agency in Washington state.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn grounded the police department’s nascent drone program last month after citizens expressed concerns about privacy, and King County Sheriff John Urquhart returned his department’s drone upon taking office last November.

Both agencies purchased drones from Draganfly Innovations, a Canadian manufacturer, using federal grant money. Seattle police had said the unmanned systems would allow the city to have some of the public-safety benefits of a manned helicopter without the prohibitive costs.

In 2008, Boeing purchased a drone manufacturing company called Insitu based in Bingen, Klickitat County.

Taylor’s bill was sponsored mostly by Republican lawmakers, but it passed the Democrat-run House Public Safety Committee on an 8-to-1 vote last month.

Boeing representatives did not testify against the bill in committee, although the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs did.

But several House lawmakers said Boeing lobbyists approached them about the bill.

Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, said, “Boeing made a compelling argument” about the potential for lost jobs, although he said that he had other concerns with the bill.

Rep. Roger Goodman, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said Boeing was concerned about “perception that any limitation on the procurement of these devices would limit their ability to produce them.”

Goodman, D-Kirkland, said he’s hopeful the bill will get a vote next year.

“It’s not dead,” he said. “It’s just in purgatory for a while.”

The story includes material from The Seattle Times archives. Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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