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Legislative Watch: The Rise of Drones During the Pandemic

The range of applications for unmanned aerial vehicles has grown in recent years and, with COVID-19, their purpose could cross into more sensitive areas, such as security and surveillance, according to research.

Chula Vista Police Department during a practice and training program involving drones. | (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are finding new applications as governments around the world respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They are already being used in France, Italy and China to monitor crowds in public places. Police in Chula Vista, Calif., are considering the use of drone-mounted speakers to help them communicate with unsheltered persons living in inaccessible areas of the city.

Police in Derbyshire, U.K., have posted photos taken with drones on Twitter of dogwalkers in local beauty spots, labeling the activity as “Not Essential,” prompting pushback from residents who had been told by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that outside exercise is allowed. A medical delivery drone company in Africa hopes its aircraft can play a role in the pandemic response. 

In the U.S., state legislatures have introduced more than 50 drone bills since the beginning of 2020. None specifically mention coronavirus, but their purpose has added significance at this time. It’s likely that more pandemic-specific legislation, as well as revised bills, will be introduced in the coming months. Here are some highlights:

SF306, a Minnesota Senate bill requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before using an unmanned aerial vehicle. In addition to applications in criminal investigations, the bill would authorize drone use “during or in the aftermath of an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person,” in natural or man-made disaster situations, and “over a public event where there is a heightened risk to the safety of participants or bystanders.” The bill, introduced in mid-February, does not mention the pandemic.

Tennessee’s HB1612 would allow law enforcement to use a drone without a search warrant to investigate the scene of a crime or to “enhance security” of public events attended by more than 100 persons. It requires that video captured at public events be posted online within one day of its collection.

By comparison, New Jersey Assembly bill A2301 would prohibit law enforcement officer or agencies from using drones in surveillance, defined as “monitoring, observing, photographing, listening to, or making a recording of a person or group of persons or their movements, activities and communications.”

A South Dakota bill, HB1059, introduced in mid-January and signed by the governor on March 2, addresses an entirely different application: hunting with drones. It makes it a misdemeanor to use a drone “to kill or attempt to kill a wild bird or animal,” or to use one to locate, spot or drive prey. The charges would not apply if the drone is operated over private land, with the permission of a landowner, or if it is used for this purpose in any month other than September, October and November.

Drone Legislation Map

[Powered by Quorum.usMap will update as new bills are introduced or their status changes.]

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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