Virginia to Mull Strictest Drone Law in U.S.

The ACLU and Tea Party are unlikely partners in what may be the country's strictest drone privacy law.

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But other Virginia organizations, notably Virginia Tech University, have received FAA permission to fly the unmanned aircraft.

Craig Woolsey, an Aerospace and Ocean Engineering professor at Virginia Tech, who is involved with its unmanned aerial vehicle program, says the university often flies a "small, 55 pound" drone to monitor wind turbulence, the spread of plant disease, and measure air pollution on the university's 2,000 acre farm. He says he's unaware of the proposed law.

"As an engineer, I hope for expanded civilian [drone] use, but I hope it's done in a way that protects privacy. As far as I'm concerned, I don't know how the [ACLU] law would affect our work," he says.

But both Gilbert and Gastanaga say law enforcement agencies aren't the only ones who will have to follow their drone law, and groups such as Virginia Tech might have to jump through hoops in order to keep flying.

Gilbert says the law would need to be "as broad and expansive as possible" and "anticipatory" to prevent unexpected uses of drones, while Gastanaga says that even university researchers' drone use might become limited under the law.

"We're also concerned about the use of drones in administrative enforcement efforts, for example environmental regulation uses," she says. "It doesn't matter if it's Virginia Tech or town of Blacksburg or the state of Virginia. No matter what agency is engaged in using these, they should be used pursuant to clearly stated policies."

But Gilbert admitted the law wouldn't be able to completely eliminate drones in Virginia.

"Realistically, it's going to be impossible to put any new technology back in the box," Gilbert says. "There are many of us who would rather stick our heads in the sand and wish this technology won't be readily available, but it's going to be there and it's not going to go away."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.

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