State stops towns from droning on – for now

kjahner@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2014 

— Tuesday afternoon, a video appeared on the Town of Garner’s Facebook wall. By Thursday, state officials were on the phone to let towns and PEG Media Partners know that, no, that’s not OK according to state and federal law.

The clip showed the state-funded nonprofit – which produces municipal television content for seven towns – testing out an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, at the site of the former ConAgra factory, which is now owned by the town. State law does not allow government entities to operate drones without state permission. Another video on the PEG website shows imagery from the drone itself as it rises above a Knightdale park.

The towns, including Garner, have complied with the state’s ruling, and state officials have said that once the proper state and federal permits are acquired PEG Media can go back to using their heli-camera, which it hopes to use in promotional videos for the towns with which it works. The issue touches on just how much legal gray area remains surrounding the use of drones.

“When I woke up this morning I did not expect to know as much about UAVs as I do now,” Garner town manager Hardin Watkins said.

The issue was initially reported in The Insider Thursday, a state-government subscription news publication owned by the News & Observer. PEG, or Public Education and Government, is a registered non-profit, but is funded by a state tax on cable and satelite providers. The company is effectively operated by seven towns: Garner, Knightdale, Zebulon, Clayton, Wendell, Rolesville and Archer Lodge. The town managers sit on the seven-member board of directors. The station was created by former Knightdale town manager Gary McConkey, who became the station’s manager when he retired from the town.

According to state law, “no State or local governmental entity or officer may procure or operate an unmanned aircraft system or disclose personal information about any person acquired through the operation of an unmanned aircraft system unless the (state chief information officer) approves an exception.”

McConkey told The Insider that he does not consider PEG a government entity, meaning the restrictive law does not apply as long as he has permission of the property owner.

But Watkins said he and the other town managers that oversee PEG do not intend to pursue that argument. McConkey said Friday that his earlier legal opinion didn’t matter and that PEG doesn’t have any intention of making trouble.

“The bigger picture is that we don’t want to cause any issue with anybody,” McConkey said. “We have to be non-controversial. We don’t want to cause any heartburn for anybody. We’re not going to be flying until we get a permit from the FAA and the state.”

Watkins said he initially got a call Thursday from Krissy Culler, the deputy State Chief Information Officer. She manages information technology for the state. Watkins was told it was the office’s opinion the operations were not allowed.

“She was very pleasant, very nice about it,” Watkins said. “The group (of town managers) believes what I believe, that we just need to park it, figure out the proper permits. Assuming those are done, Gary can resume doing those kinds of things.”

Representatives from Knightdale and Garner both said they don’t oversee PEG. They work with the organization, lease space provided by the town of Knightdale and provide access to town meetings, events and officials. But they don’t otherwise provide supervision or legal advice.

Surveillance worries ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken a keen and cautionary interst in UAVs. Sarah Preston, North Carolina ACLU policy director, emphasized privacy but also First Ammendment rights for those who might use drones for artistic purposes. The ACLU played a role in the provision in state law putting a moratorium on drone use by government, largely in fear of police using drones for surveilance without a warrant.

“Our primary concern is with govermnent surveillance using drones,” Preston said. “When it comes to artistic kinds of things, we think the state needs to be careful how they regulate that.”

Asked about the promotional and B-roll material sought by PEG, she said that generally as long as people weren’t identifiable in videos without their permission, her organization had no problem with it.

Drones are still fairly uncommon, and Preston said she didn’t know of any cases where the law had resulted in legal challenges or complaints.

Law enforcement lobbying

Meanwhile, the group the ACLU aims to keep tabs on appeared before a General Assembly committee last week arguing against restriction of drones. State law enforcement officials, led by Garner police Chief Brandon Zuidema, argued they could offer valuable and cost-effective assistance in various situations, such as search-and-rescue and drug-control operations.

Zuidema, speaking on behalf of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, urged legislators at a meeting of the House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems to defer action on any legislation regulating the use of unmanned aircraft systems.

“We believe at this point premature and overly restrictive regulation might in fact prevent valuable and legitimate uses of unmanned aircraft systems as this technology evolves,” Zuidema said.

Zuidema recommended allowing research and discussions around the emerging issue to continue. Unmanned aircraft, he said, have the potential to significantly expand the capabilities of law enforcement agencies operating with limited resources.

No law enforcement agencies currently operate drones in the state. A legislative committee is studying the controversial topic and plans to issue a report, including draft legislation, before the General Assembly reconvenes in May.

Patrick Gannon of The Insider contributed to this report.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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