Thursday, July 25, 2013

Texas policymakers need to up their game on drone regulation

In retrospect, Grits considers Texas' drone bill (HB 912) arguably the weirdest,  most surreal piece of criminal-justice legislation passed this session. It's already routinely cited as a national example of how NOT to craft drone legislation. It was one of those "only in Texas" moments. What other state would put county misdemeanor prosecutors, justices of the peace, and municipal court judges in charge of aircraft regulation? Have you ever sat through JP or municipal court?

The problem with banning drones is that they're awesome. Even if you worry about privacy, who doesn't want to fly one of these bad boys? Then, once folks get into it, or once a business finds they fulfill some core need, there's always one more sensor or gadget to add. There are too many cool things you can do with them - from the mundane to the ridiculous, from the utterly practical to the absurd and artistic - to simply ban the technology altogether. And cameras are too fundamental to how drones operate and the things people do with them to apply a blanket ban on photography, even with HB 912's litany of exceptions. You can't anticipate every use, good or bad, and wouldn't want to. Part of the beauty of the current technological revolution is its open-ended nature. Nobody can say for sure where it's taking us, just that we're moving awfully fast. But the answer is to cautiously apply the brakes on the curves, not to derail the train.

I mention this to promote an opportunity for involved parties and opinion leaders to add new tools to their collective toolboxes, and perhaps to figure out when and how to use different ones. Check out this conference in October on Drones and Aerial Robotics; it should be a must-attend affair for everyone in and around the Texas capitol associated with Texas' "drone bill," including state Rep. Lance Gooden, his principal co-conspirators, and their staff but perhaps also representatives from the leadership, too. They let this bill happen, now they need to develop some expertise on their staffs to clean it up the next time.

The speakers list at the NY conference includes most every expert I've run across as Grits researched the questions surrounding Texas' bill during the 83rd session. It includes several people (like Margot Kaminski) who have forgotten more about drone tech, law and policy than anyone involved in the Texas legislation ever appeared to know.

Our drone bill was developed within Texas politics' own little bubble. If a special interest complained, they got a "carve out" so the bill didn't apply to them. Texans for Lawsuit Reform signed off on the bill only after including a highly restrictive damages cap. Anybody with sufficient clout to snuff the bill - which turned out to be a lot of people - got special provisions written in for them. The result made the ban on drone photography look like Swiss cheese. prompting the lobbyist for the prosecutors' association to predict that the new offense would never be successfully prosecuted in Texas. The only functional part of the bill is the strong exclusionary rule for law enforcement.

This isn't a knock on Rep. Gooden, his staff, or any other legislators closely involved with the bill. This stuff is hard. There are complicated considerations across the technical, legal, and political fronts, each of which pose dilemmas that would stump Solomon. Nobody's regulated  an emerging personal transportation technology like this since since the first automobile statutes proliferated. It's difficult to know even where to begin. Still, Texas did a big thing badly. The result could harm innovation in Texas industry potentially for years to come in an area where experts say the state is poised to dominate.

The Speaker of the House and the Lt. Governor haven't yet announced Interim Charges for the standing committees but Grits hopes one or both of them include a charge to study the implementation of HB 912 and to recommend improvements to the law. The FAA won't allow drones in commercial airspace until September 2015, so there's still time for Texas to fix this before it really becomes harmful to the state's economic competitiveness. But Texas lawmakers must up their game. HB 912 became such a mess mainly because its proponents and opponents alike lacked a basic understanding of the issues or a clear vision for a sensible path forward. In 17 months when the Lege re-convenes for the 84th session, it would be nice to see the debate over drones occur at a more sophisticated level.


doran said...

I suspect self-help will be the optimum manner for a person to protect his or her privacy from being violated by drones.

One, plant a lot of trees in the privacy area. Pecan trees are good at that, and there are other varieties which do not loose leaves in winter.

Two, "post" a large sign, flat on the ground in an open area, warning trespassers that their drones will be shot down.

Three, if you are in a rural area, use a 12 ga. shotgun or a .22 rifle to protect one's property and privacy from trespass via drone.

Four, if you are in an urban area, use a laser to disable the optics on drones.

Five, "capture" a drone, somehow, and if it has ownership data on it, sue the owner.

Six (and my favorite because it will look so neat), stake helium-filled balloons around your premises, at various altitudes.

Anonymous said...