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The drone ban: Little Jimmy the spy

March 30. 2013 3:59AM

No one wants a drone snapping photos of the backyard at the precise moment one is bent over to pick up a pile of leaves. Rest easy, beltless yard workers, the New Hampshire House of Representatives is on the case! (Sort of.)

The very idea of robots surveiling us from the sky is creepy. It sounds like something George Orwell would warn us against if he were alive today - and a Hollywood screenwriter. Yet on Wednesday the House tabled a bill that would have prohibited the use of drones in New Hampshire skies for the purposes of surveilance and attack. Why? Ah, details, details.

House Bill 619. sponsored by Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, the House guardian of personal privacy, had a simple title: "An act prohibiting images of a person's residence to be taken from the air." As introduced by Kurk, it was a simple bill, too. It would have banned the photographing of the exterior of any dwelling if the photograph was taken by or with the assistance of "a satellite, drone, or any device that is not supported by the ground" and revealed "forms identifiable as human beings or man-made objects."

There were some problems with that language, and the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee set about to improve the bill. What it released to the House, alas, was a larger, longer, more complex and hopelessly flawed bill that went way beyond Kurk's simple attempt to protect people's backyard privacy.

The committee defined "drone" as "an unmanned flying machine" capable of recording images or sounds of people on the ground or of firing rays, missiles or weapons. The flaw in that definition would be instantly apparent to any model aircraft enthusiast. The committee had classified all camera-mounted, remote-control aircraft and model rockets as drones.

At Manchester's Derryfield Park, Bedford's Benedictine Park, and numerous other open spaces throughout the state one can find on many dry days kids and adults flying radio-controlled airplanes, helicopters and space ships, or launching model rockets. A growing percentage of those unmanned flying machines carry video cameras.

You can get a remote-controlled helicopter with a video camera for as little as $50. You can get a tiny video camera for less than $30 and put it in your $12 model rocket, as Cub Scouts sometimes do. Were the current version of HB 619 the law of the land, your Cub Scout would be operating an illegal drone.

The House was right to put this half-baked idea back in the oven. Before we go banning kids' toys or legitimate commercial activity (someday soon documentary filmmakers and commercial photographers will start using drones instead of hiring private planes for aerial shots), let's take more time to mull whether we really need a new law just yet.

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