Virginia Governor on Drone Ban: Police Use OK

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said Tuesday he would amend pending drone legislation to allow law enforcement use of unmanned vehicles.

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The Department of Defense has decided to nix a medal that would honor pilots of drones and other cyber warriors.

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will offer substantial amendments to the state's drone moratorium bill that would allow the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by law enforcement and universities, according to the governor's office.

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Last month, the state became the first to pass anti-drone legislation as lawmakers sought to impose a two-year ban on unmanned aircraft use in the state. But McDonnell's amendments will "allow the use of [drones] for certain law enforcement operations such as the search or rescue of missing persons or in cases involving imminent danger to citizens," his office said Tuesday.

"This will allow law enforcement officials to use this developing technology to protect public safety while respecting individual rights of citizens and their expectation of privacy," Jeff Caldwell, McDonnell's press secretary, said.

Last week, officials affiliated with the drone industry said that if the McDonnell signed the law as is, effectively banning drones until at least 2015, the state's economy would suffer.

"The proposed law is creating a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace," says Clay Thomas, program chair of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's Virginia chapter. "If it's signed, where do these companies go? We'd like to keep them here in Virginia … if it happens, we'd waste at least two years, and then where would we be positioned as a state?"

[PHOTOS: The Expansion of the Drone]

After the legislation was approved by the state legislature, Peter Bale, Chairman of AUVSI, wrote a letter to McDonnell saying that the moratorium would "hinder the ability of [drones] to assist police, firefighters and other first responders."

 

According to McDonnell's office, the amendment would make clear that the moratorium "does not apply to institutions of higher education or other entities engaged in research and development of this and related technology," so companies would likely still be able to develop new unmanned aircraft.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped write the original legislation, sent McDonnell's office a petition signed by more than 18,000 supporters of the legislation from around the country. Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU said McDonnell "has a chance to set a nationwide trend by signing legislation limiting the use of domestic drones and making a statement that our constitutional rights are more important than profits."

[READ: Police Kill Suspects with Snipers All the Time -- Why Not Drones?]

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that supports stronger privacy laws, said Tuesday that McDonnell's amendments—specifically the specific definition of "certain law enforcement operations"—likely make the moratorium toothless.

"Public statements made by the governor in the past indicate that he is in favor of increased drone use for law enforcement operations," says Amie Stepanovich, director of the group's Domestic Surveillance Project. "His actions make clear that this is still his stance."

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