Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, have great potential both for good and for bad. North Carolina needs a regulatory system that is strict where it must be and flexible otherwise.
Drones can assess damage from natural disaster at far less cost than entailed from the use of manned aircraft. They can spot disease infestations in crops and check bridges.
They also, if misused, can spy on individuals in what those individuals thought was the privacy of their homes. Think Big Brother in the sky.
Wisely, North Carolina put a moratorium on the use of drones while issues are worked out. The issues now are well enough defined that it’s time to move on with a regulatory framework.
Drone technology is evolving steadily, so the system needs to be sufficiently flexible to adjust to changing circumstances. There is one point, however, on which it must be rigid: no surveillance of individuals without a search warrant.
The Fourth Amendment outlaws “unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires warrants to be specific. The framers were thinking of physical searches but they wrote with sufficient flexibility that their words can be applied to technologies of which they never dreamed.
That same flexibility should be used by the General Assembly in crafting a framework that presumably will give a governance board power to approve or deny requests for drone use by governmental agencies. That board also could consider penalties for violation of its rules.
The rules should be specific enough so applicants know what they can and cannot do, but flexible enough so the rules do not have to be rewritten every time there is a technological advance.
As technology advances, that will present its own set of problems for law-enforcement, specifically the transportation of contraband. But the technology has not yet reached that point.
The immediate task for North Carolina is to see that agencies can use drones without infringing on our liberties.