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Oregon drone fans fear (legislative) death from above

By   /   February 6, 2013  /   No Comments

FLIGHT RIGHTS: Hobbyists fear pending bill would prohibit their model drone-flying fun.

By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog

PORTLAND – Patrick Sherman is sure Oregon officials failed to Google “First Person View flying” while drafting a bill to regulate drone activity in the state.

“They must assume we don’t exist,” said Sherman, of Roswell Flight Test Crew. Sherman is an avid FPV hobbyist. He and friend Brian Zvaigzne, both of Tigard, build and fly personal drones for fun – and hope to someday use the technology to assist in public safety.

Sherman and other Oregonians who fly the small toy-like devices (they resemble a plastic bucket with four mini-propellers shooting out the sides with a camera attached) have major concerns with the proposed legislation — check out their humorous yet informative video.

Of special concern: Senate Bill 71, which would regulate drones and make unlicensed possession of one a crime punishable with jail time.

“What I really find creepy about it is that it’s been declared an emergency. The moment that Gov. John Kitzhaber lifts the pen from the paper I am immediately transformed into a criminal,” Sherman said. “It’s just loopy. I can’t conceive that this is what the authors of this bill want or intend.”

The author of the bill, state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, insists it’s just a placeholder and that the proposed regulations are not aimed at hobbyists. Kevin Moore, legislative aide to Prozanski, said the bill will be amended.

“It was broadly written, but it will be amended to focus on the bad conduct of operators of drones,” he said. “They really want to focus on what you consider drones, not hobby stuff.”

As it is written now, the bill would declare an “Airspace of Oregon” (space not already controlled by federal law) and restrict the use of drones in that space to those permitted by the Oregon Department of Aviation or the federal government. Punishment for violation of the act ranges from a misdemeanor (anyone who gains unauthorized control over a drone) to a felony (using a drone to hunt or stalk game).

Prozanski is working with staff to amend the bill and plans to have an update online in a couple of weeks, Moore said.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle across the nation are looking at regulating drones over concerns about civilian privacy. Watchdog.org recently reported that in at least 13 states, lawmakers this year will examine bills to place strict limits on how government entities can deploy drones.

An FPV device is used during a controlled burn. Photos courtesy of Roswell Flight Test Crew

Sherman said private drones are largely misunderstood. The Roswell Flight Test Crew uses its craft to capture video of hot-air balloon festivals, fireworks shows and controlled burns.

“Most of it is just strictly people having fun,” he said. “Pilots” wear funky goggles that allow them to see the video on the device in real time. Sherman said he has no aspirations for commercial use of the drones but hopes the technology will someday help first responders and scientific research.

Harvey Smythe, one of the founders and secretary/treasurer of Field of Screams Heli Club, (members fly their toys in a field in Damascus)  called the proposed legislation “terribly written.”

“It basically attempts to avoid future problems by wholesale destruction of an important and valuable new technology,” he said, adding most people, perhaps the senator included, don’t understand there is a whole community of people nationwide who fly drones for fun with no intention of spying on their neighbors — which is already against the law.

Smythe said there’s a stigma attached to  his hobby. “You say the word ‘drone’ and you think of a killing machine,” he said. “There’s a lot of political fervor behind that.”

“We’re not fighting all regulation,” he said. “There needs to be regulation but it needs to be thought out.”

Prozanski is not the only one pushing for drone legislation. State Rep. John Huffman, R-Dalles, has introduced a proposal that would regulate drones used by law enforcement and other public agencies.

“Mine’s not punitive,” Huffman said. “I don’t want to restrict the use of drones.”

But his bill, HB 2710, is also in the early stages.

Huffman said he is working with district attorneys, sheriffs and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon to create the legislation.

“We’re all trying to work together to craft the proper wording on the bill,” he said, adding the goal is to ensure proper use of the drones by police.

Meanwhile, Sherman and other flying drone enthusiasts are working to inform the public about their hobby and oppose any law that would give them jail time for taking video of boat races and pirate festivals with their approximately 4-pound flying toys.

“I think when people hear ‘drone’ they don’t think of my silly little thing with four propellers,” Sherman said. “It’s super easy to paint them with a broad brush.”

Sherman, whose website includes a sample letter to the legislature opposing the current bill and a link to contact Kitzhaber, said several other flying groups in Oregon have joined in the opposition.

Contact the author at Shelby@NorthwestWatchdog.org, and follow her on Twitter @ShelbySebens. For more Northwest Watchdog updates, visit NWWatchdog on Facebook and Twitter.

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