AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas cities and legislators have struggled with the benefits and potential harm of drones in terms of privacy and public safety.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Sunday that several police departments in the state currently test drones and two of them currently operate the aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration only allows use of drones in urban areas when life in is imminent danger.
FAA records show that, aside from the Border Patrol drones that fly mostly over unpopulated areas of the Rio Grande, the largest users of drones in Texas are universities that use them for emergency response training, natural resource studies, aeronautical engineering and to monitor river and wetland habitats.
Reactions from the public to police drone testing programs have been varied. Sgt. Christopher Cook with the Arlington police department said there was not much pushback because they've "made it very clear the privacy of our citizens is of paramount importance."
Meanwhile, Austin chief of police Art Acevedo killed a drone testing program after learning about the insurance costs of a leased $120,000 aircraft. That, and concerns of how it would be perceived. "I knew it would invoke a lot of suspicion and paranoia," Acevedo said.
Most of the drones being tested or used by police in the state are different from the large Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used by the military or federal agencies that operate them from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The police drones are much smaller and in most cases are flown within sight of their operator.
With vast swaths of uninhabited ranch land and university aerospace programs that do research in drone technology, the state wants to make the case that it is a good candidate to become one of six chosen by the FAA as test ranges to understand how commercial drones can fly safely and be allowed in the national airspace. If successful, the effort backed by Gov. Rick Perry and Texas A&M at Corpus Christi could mean up to $800 million in economic activity and up to 15,000 jobs in research and manufacturing.
Currently, the FAA has issued less than 400 permits for drones, but the number is expected to rise to 30,000 over the next two decades.
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, co-sponsors the Preserving America Privacy Act, which would mandate that governments obtain warrants before using a drone "to collect information that can identify individuals in a private area" and would prevent them from equipping the drones with weapons. It would also allow even tougher state laws to supersede federal policy.
A bill by state Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell seeks to bar drones from recording images of private property without a search warrant. The plan has garnered the support of about 100 House members from both parties.