Lawmakers consider bill that would prohibit drones from flying near orcas

Two bills that would restrict where drone pilots can fly unmanned aircrafts faced hearings this session.

The first bill, heard last week, would prohibit pilots from flying drones with operating cameras over private property. The second bill, which had a hearing at the House Technology and Economic Development committee Tuesday, would make it illegal to fly drones over certain endangered marine species, but lawmakers expressed interest in expanding the scope of the bill.

“I am amendable to fixing this in whatever wise way this committee deems,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, at HB 1031’s hearing. “My intent though is to keep drones away from orca whales.”

The bill’s language would make it illegal to fly a drone (intentionally or unintentionally) within 200 yards of an orca.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, asked Lytton if she’d be willing to expand the bill’s language to cover endangered species more broadly.

“I think that is a good idea,” Lytton said.

She noted she heard accounts of drones flying toward nesting bald eagles. She said she could work to expand the bill to keep pilots from flying unmanned aircrafts near endangered species in general.

Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said it would be important to consider the intent of the drone operator in the bill language. If a pilot wasn’t trying to get close to an orca pod, he suggested, it could be problematic for them to face penalties.

Lytton agreed to examine those considerations when changing the bill language further.

Drone regulations expanding

The Federal Aviation Administration rolled out regulations for drone pilots in 2016. The regulations require pilots fly their unmanned aircraft within their line of sight, a policy that makes long-distance travel a no-go for operators. Washington lawmakers are now looking to see where they have jurisdiction to regulate drones, and the best types of regulations to enact, Morris said at a Technology and Economic Development committee last week.

Amazon and other companies are still in the beta stages of their drone delivery programs, but these new FAA regulations mean commercial drone delivery in the U.S. is still a ways out.

Morris sponsored the other piece of drone regulation legislation, HB 1049, which he said is intended to prevent stalking and harassment. His bill underwent a public hearing Jan. 10. Two officials testifying at that hearing urged lawmakers to expand the language in the bill to prohibit drone pilots from flying near certain public institutions like correctional facilities, and to allow municipalities to prohibit drones from certain event spaces.

Erin Fenner: erin@washingtonstatewire.com, @erinfenner

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