Lawmakers take aim at private drone use for video, photography


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist DAVID GARDNER

Posted on February 15, 2013 at 7:32 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 7 at 3:15 PM

AUSTIN -- There are the fixed-wing military aircraft for tracking terrorists, miniature helicopters used for high-dollar home listings and a growing number of camera carrying gadgets being flown just for fun. 
Whether you call them "drones," unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or flying cameras, the technology has gotten smaller and cheaper. As more people begin to use them, some lawmakers worry that regulations haven't caught up.
"It came to my attention that individuals are concerned, citizens are concerned about privacy, property rights," said state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), who signed onto HB 912 authored by state Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell) aimed to crack down on the private use of drones.
The law would make it a misdemeanor crime to take video of other people or their property without their permission and limit their use in public places. According to the text, drones could be operated no more than six feet above the ground in public areas. The only exceptions would be for law enforcement and the military. 
"I think we're trying to address the concern that I would lift one up and go maybe check my neighbor's private property," Whitmire said.
"We are not trying to design and develop our systems for people to use them for spying," said DJI North America CEO Colin Guinn.
The Austin company develops unmanned aerial systems for use in film and television, and it's consumer model "Phantom" released in January has already created a sensation among amateur videographers.    
"While the bill comes from a good place, has a positive idea in mind, I think that it's a little bit broad in its current scope," said Guinn.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has only recently announced regulations for drone use by private businesses. While Guinn suggests most in the industry welcome some sort of common sense regulation to increase safety and privacy, he points out there are already laws against spying on neighbors.
Just over dozen employees work out of the company's Austin office, with 500 employed overseas. As the business of building drones for media, private corporations and consumers continues to expand, Guinn warns over-regulation could hurt a growing industry. 
"We're not going to bring those jobs to Texas if we think that Texas doesn't want the UAV industry," said Guinn. "So those jobs will be somewhere. That money will be spent somewhere, and I personally, as a University of Texas grad and somebody who loves Austin, would love for that work to be here and for more and more of those employees to go to Austin." 
A deadly helicopter crash Sunday in California has added fuel to arguments that drones will play an ever increasing role in the media. Guinn said a friend was among the three people who died while shooting aerial footage for a Discovery Channel reality television show.
"People are dying," said Guinn. "Put an unmanned system up there and who cares if it crashes? There's a lot of instances where it just makes so much more sense to save lives using unmanned systems. So while I think there are some concerns with the privacy, there's just a lot of other ways that they make such good sense. Let's all work together and find a way that we can integrate them into our airspace."
The bill's sponsors admit it's just the beginning of the conversation. 
"It's going to create a lot of dialogue, it's interesting," said Whitmire. "This is the beginning of something that's going to be an industry." 
Lawmakers could soon decide whether the sky is still the limit.