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Originally published Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 4:51 PM

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Ore. Legislature considers drone regulation

As the nation debates the use of drones to hunt terrorism suspects abroad, Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation that would regulate how drones could be used here.

Associated Press

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SALEM, Ore. —

As the nation debates the use of drones to hunt terrorism suspects abroad, Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation that would regulate how drones could be used here.

The Oregon Legislature will consider three drone-related bills this session. One of them goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The bill would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal warrant before using drones for surveillance of private property, in all but emergency circumstances. State or local government bodies would be required to register with the state Department of Aviation to fly an unmanned aircraft in Oregon's skies.

The legislation is intended to ensure citizens' privacy.

"We think drones coming to Oregon raises significant privacy issues that can't be addressed under current law," said Becky Straus, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which supports the bill.

But opponents of the legislation say it would discourage development of a new economic sector that could help Oregon - the manufacture of drones.

"That's a heartache we have with the committee bill," said Roger Lee, director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, a nonprofit group that is pushing to allow drone testing in the region. "It would add another layer of regulation on top of federal regulations."

Under current law, anyone can own a drone if they have a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. But extremely tight federal regulations and an extensive application process make it very difficult for the average person to obtain a flying permit. Bills regulating the use of drones are popping up around the country because Congress wants to streamline this application process and make it easier for public bodies to use domestic drones.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon is one of more than 30 states considering regulatory action on domestic drones amid concerns that they will be used to spy on Americans. In March, Virginia approved a two-year moratorium on unmanned aircraft to allow time for study. California and Georgia are considering legislation intended to boost the unmanned aerial vehicle industry.

Last week in Washington state, a bill that would have regulated the use and purchases of drones by state agencies and local municipalities died without getting a vote. The bipartisan bill was supported by civil liberties groups and privacy advocates but had a powerful opponent: the Boeing Co., which argued it would have blunted job growth in the burgeoning drone manufacturing industry.

President Barack Obama last year signed a budget bill requiring the FAA to expand the use of unmanned aircrafts into American airspace by 2015, and to develop regulations for testing and licensing commercial drones.

Among its provisions, the Oregon bill up for a hearing Wednesday would impose penalties on private citizens who use drones to eavesdrop, wiretap, stalk or trespass. It also makes killing game with a drone a crime.

Sen. Floyd Prozanksi, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill is intended to prevent the "misuse of drones" by citizens and law enforcement. The Eugene Democrat said more amendments will be introduced, and one would protect hobbyists who fly model aircraft from unnecessary penalties.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, has introduced a measure that would require law enforcement agencies to erase all data collected by a drone within 30 days if no criminal activity was recorded.

"I just want to make sure that people's rights are held intact when law enforcement agencies use drones," he said. "But I'm not trying to restrict the use of drones."

He said the ACLU, law enforcement agencies and industry representatives provided input for his bill. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Chip Shields, a Democrat from Portland.

A variety of agencies are interested in putting drones to use in Oregon.

Oregon State University has applied for a drone license to spot forest fires and study environmental changes.

Clackamas County Sheriff's Sgt. Adam Phillips said his department applied with the FAA for a small-capacity drone license.

Small drones are cheaper than helicopters and can fly places that would be dangerous to send an officer, Phillips said. He said the Sheriff's Office could use unmanned aircraft to help with search and rescue missions or to fight wildfires. Phillips said the department so far has no plans to integrate the aircraft if the FAA approves the application, and lacks the budget to acquire them.

The FAA will select diverse areas across the country for drone testing, and Oregon is tossing its hat in the ring with a multistate proposal that includes a possible partnership with Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

Nationwide, the topic of drones has been rife with controversy.

The Seattle Police Department was one of the first agencies in the country to adopt a drone program. The department planned to use two small drones to survey crime and crash scenes and for search and rescue operations. But citizens and privacy advocates protested, and the police department decided to abandon the program.

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