Using a drone to spy on neighbors, drop drugs into prisons or harass cows could lead to criminal charges under a new bill Nebraska lawmakers will consider later this year.
The measure would impose new safety and privacy rules on the remote-control flying machines that are now used for dozens of jobs throughout the state.
Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue said she introduced the bill to protect the public without overregulating drones, the kind of technology she said is critical to the state's economic growth. The Federal Aviation Administration already oversees drones, but Blood said the agency hasn't addressed all of the public safety concerns.
"We want to make sure we have laws that tell people what our expectations are when they use technology," she said.
If the measure passes, Nebraska would join 40 other states with laws regulating drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws often address how law enforcement agencies and the general public can use the devices.
The Nebraska bill would create a variety of new restrictions for drone users. Pilots who use drones to peep inside homes without permission could face a misdemeanor charge, and so could sex offenders who use drones to violate a protection order.
Drone users who fly lower than 300 feet over private property after receiving a trespass notice could also be charged, as could pilots who fly too close to a prison or cordoned-off crime scene. The bill would prohibit pilots from strapping weapons to their drones or harassing livestock.
The legislation also would shield police officers and firefighters from lawsuits if they damage a drone while performing their official duties and believed it was interfering with their work. Law enforcement agencies could use information from drones with a warrant or in certain emergencies and situations.
A Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman said the agency has had no confirmed drone sightings over a state prison but was aware of incidents in other states where pilots used them to deliver contraband.
Blood stressed that the bill wouldn't apply to drone pilots who have a property owner's permission. She said she has spent the past year researching the issue and working with drone pilots, law enforcement, city officials and others to reach a compromise that wouldn't infringe on anyone's rights.
"People are worried about being overregulated," she said. "I keep assuring them that if they're responsible, this won't affect them in any way."
Even so, the bill will likely generate debate among drone users and their supporters. David Silchman, who owns an Omaha-based flight school, said he hadn't seen the proposal but questioned whether state laws are necessary given the current federal licensing and registration requirements.
Silchman said drones have become increasingly important in a variety of fields, such as agriculture and real estate. Railroad and utility companies frequently use them to inspect their infrastructure.
"Every day, people find more and more uses for them," he said.
Drones have also proven invaluable to some Nebraska law enforcement agencies, despite past efforts to curtail their use. In 2013, lawmakers considered legislation to ban law enforcement agencies from using drones, but the bill never advanced out of committee.
La Vista Police Chief Bob Lausten said drones have helped his department photograph crime scenes without a helicopter and scout homes before serving high-risk search warrants. Officers recently relied on a drone to locate children who had run away from home, he said. In October, they used it to reconstruct a crash involving a cement mixer that overturned and killed two Omaha men.
"There are a lot of different uses," he said. "We want to be able to utilize the technology, but do it without infringing on anyone's civil rights."
Many ranchers see drones as a helpful tool to check wells and fences and search for lost cattle amid the state's workforce shortage, said Jessie Herrmann, the Nebraska Cattlemen Association's director of legal and regulatory affairs.
But Herrmann said her group's members are also concerned that animal rights groups will fly drones over their property without permission. Earlier this year, she said one animal rights group flew a drone over the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center, Nebraska, and may also have photographed a feedlot.
"There's going to be a lot of interest" in the bill, Herrmann said. "It's a pretty big issue that a lot of people are concerned about."