The growing interest in pilotless aircraft has raised concerns about ensuring privacy and protecting civil rights. The devices make it faster and cheaper to gather information, but some lawmakers say the increased access could be exploited without proper regulations.
Several bills in the Legislature, including one scheduled for a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on Tuesday, would set penalties for privacy violations and require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant in non-emergency situations before deploying drone aircraft.
The proposed parameters are being considered as the Federal Aviation Administration reviews applications for drone test sites throughout the country. FAA officials estimate that as many as 30,000 unmanned aircraft could be buzzing through the country's sky by 2030.
Groups in Ventura and Kern counties have applied to host test sites, and the state Assembly has advanced legislation directing the governor's economic development office to work with applicants in an effort to bolster California's chances.
But Democratic lawmakers also have expressed concerns about unmanned aircraft, approving a resolution during the party's recent state convention that urged halting drone use domestically and abroad.
As an example of the growing concerns, officials in Alameda County encountered resistance when they sought to buy a drone to aid in search-and-rescue missions, eventually shelving their plan over concerns about a lack of privacy safeguards.
Law enforcement officials and other proponents say demand for the aircraft has been misunderstood.
Situations in which sending a helicopter might be dangerous - such as fighting fires, searching for lost hikers and scoping out illegal marijuana fields protected by armed guards - are more likely scenarios for flying a drone than general surveillance, they say. Other more benign uses under review include farm irrigation, storm research, oil spill detection and traffic monitoring.
"The concerns really seem to be the idea that these are going to be regularly used on a daily basis watching people and following people around," said Aaron Maguire of the California State Sheriffs' Association. "That's not the case."
But as technological advances allow for flying robots that collect audio and video, policymakers need to discuss the potential effects of using such tools, said Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Reducing the cost of collecting information removes a natural check on law enforcement officials and their limited budgets, she said. Lawmakers should carefully devise rules for how long information can be kept and with whom it can be shared.
Recent amendments to AB1327, from Republican Assemblyman Jeff Gorell of Camarillo, define the types of emergency situations in which law enforcement officers could use drones without a warrant, including in hostage situations and fires. The changes also require data gathered by drones to be destroyed within 10 days if they are not part of an on-going investigation.
Gorell, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, is familiar with drones from a tour in Afghanistan. He deployed drones in operations because of the advantages they have over helicopters and said those advantages create the need for guidelines as domestic use grows.
"It's a lethally silent technology that can loiter for days over a fixed position," he said.
Gorell also is pushing a companion bill, AB1326, co-authored by Democrat Steven Bradford of Gardena, which would give tax credits to companies that manufacture unmanned aircraft in California. Gorell cites the state's history of hosting the aerospace industry, saying he wants make sure jobs designing and building the high-demand devices to go to Californians.
A bill from Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, scheduled for committee debate this week, would update state privacy laws to clarify that recording people without their knowledge cannot be done using an unmanned device.
Prying neighbors or other parties using a drone to collect information when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy could be subject to penalties under his measure.
"As new technologies emerge, they shouldn't be exempt from the same privacy structure we've had in place," Padilla said.
The state sheriff's association says it views the Assembly version as too restrictive and has not yet taken a position on Padilla's bill, SB15.
One area of agreement is that adding weapons to unmanned aircraft should not be allowed. The measures in both legislative chambers specifically outlaw weaponized drones.
"We don't have to look further than the Boston Marathon to see what someone with bad intentions could do," Padilla said.