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Wash. State Task Force Starts Work On New Drone Regulations

AP Photo
In this undated photo provided by AeroVironment, a man hand-launches a Puma drone aricraft.

Imagine looking out your window to see a drone hovering outside. That happened earlier this month to a partially-dressed Seattle women who was startled and outraged.

That incident came up Monday as a Washington state task force convened for the first time to develop privacy rules for drones — something Oregon and Idaho have already done. The task force quickly narrowed its focus to use of drones by government agencies.

Back in April, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the Washington Legislature's first attempt to regulate in this space, then convened this task force. The group is now making another attempt to strike a balance between privacy protection and cost-efficient aerial data collection for jobs like counting elk or monitoring an oil spill.

Mitch Barker of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs is law enforcement's representative on the panel. He fears a rulemaking "quagmire."

“We can fly to wildlife, but if we happen to see somebody murdering their wife at a campsite, we can't use that. It becomes very difficult for us,” he said.

Washington's drone task force is mindful that the Federal Aviation Administration is already in the midst of writing rules for commercial drone operations. 

Last year, the Oregon Legislature passed a measure to limit police use of drones for surveillance. The Idaho Legislature approved a broader ban against photographing or recording over private property without the owner's consent.

In conjunction with his April veto, Inslee declared a 15-month moratorium on state agency purchases of drones and asked local police to follow suit. That was intended to give lawmakers time to craft better privacy rules. 

The next meeting of the Washington drone task force is on August 11 in Olympia.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.