Virginia Becomes First State to Pass Drone Regulations

Bill would put moratorium on drone use until July 1, 2015.

People look at a Gatewing X100 drone during the 'UAV Show Europe', Sept. 26, 2012.

People inspect a Gatewing X100 drone at the 'UAV Show Europe', Sept. 26, 2012.

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The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill Tuesday that will put a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. If signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia will become the first state in the U.S. to enact drone regulations.

Virginia House Bill 2012 easily passed Monday by a vote of 83-16 and its companion, Senate Bill 1331, passed Tuesday by a vote of 36-2.

The measures require that no state or local law enforcement agency "shall utilize an unmanned aircraft system before July 1, 2015." In cases where there is a "major disaster" or Amber Alert, a search and rescue operation using police drones may be used when "necessary to protect life, health, or property."

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Both bills are largely pared down from earlier drafts, which would have required law enforcement to obtain government permission to purchase a drone and a warrant in order to operate the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Claire Gastanaga, director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, says law enforcement and privacy groups couldn't agree on the more extensive drafts.

"We folded it into the moratorium bill because we just couldn't come to consensus with all the stakeholders. Frankly, the law enforcement folks were saying they didn't want to go beyond the bare privacy protections the fourth amendment allows," says Gastanaga, who helped write the bill. "This preserves the status quo, and allows us to go slow, and gives us the time to show everyone why we'd want to require a warrant to use this technology. The idea with the moratorium is we'll get everyone to the table to agree on regulations, then we'll come back next session."

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Charlottesville, Va., became the first city in the United States to pass anti-drone legislation, passing a resolution banning drone use on Monday. That resolution included language that "endorses the proposal for a two-year moratorium on drones in the state of Virginia."

One potential hang-up is McDonnell, who said last summer that use of drones by law enforcement agencies would be "great" and "absolutely the right thing to do." Gastanaga says her group's work has stemmed from those comments.

"With such as strong bipartisan vote, I'm hoping he will sign the legislation," Gastanaga says.

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