New anti-drone bills could stifle drone journalism investigations

States are in the process of writing or voting on new bills which could put a damper on UAS use in the United States.

Texas joined a group of states looking to enact anti-drone legislation on Friday, by introducing a bill into that state's legislature that would make it illegal to capture images of private property. According to HB921, called the "Texas Privacy Act," it would be illegal to use or authorize the use "of an unmanned vehicle or aircraft to capture an image without the express consent of the person who owns or lawfully occupies the real property captured in the image."

An additional penalty in the bill would punish anyone who possesses or distributes an illegal image.

In either case, the perpetrator could receive a fine of up to $500. Gathering images illegally with a drone would be a class C misdemeanor, the same as simple assault, criminal trespass, and shoplifting.

The Texas Tribune reported that those in the UAS community believe the law would cripple commercial use of drones.

“If I’m using it to continuously monitor somebody, I think we could make a law that would forbid such a thing,” Todd Humphreys, the director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, said according to the Texas Tribune. “But if I’m up there doing some other benign research and happen to capture your picture inadvertently, I don’t think ought to be outlawed.”

The anti-drone bill comes out of the same state where a private drone previously uncovered environmental contamination from a meat packing plant.

A privately-owned, recreational camera drone had captured images of meat packing plant in the Dallas area that resulted in a federal investigation and indictment. In January 2012, sUAS news interviewed a hobbyist who inadvertently recorded pictures of a creek that had been contaminated with blood. The hobbyist sent the images to the Coast Guard, which distributed information to federal and state environmental agencies.

The meat packing plant was found to be dumping pig's blood into a public waterway, and was shut down by authorities. The plant owner has been indicted for environmental crimes and could face five years in prison and fines of up to $1.2 million. His business, the Columbia Meat Packing Company, could face fines between $6,000 and $1.5 million.

Oregon also recently introduced new laws on drone use, which would make it a class A misdemeanor to operate a drone without the permission of the Oregon Department of Aviation. The law contains provisions for the ODA to assess a fee for registering drones.

Posted on April 13, 2012 .