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Public forum looks at state role in setting policy

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF DREAMSTIME - A public forum on the civilian and military use of drones takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7, at the First Unitarian Church of Portlands Eliot Chapel at Southwest 12th Avenue and Salmon Street.The past year has been a big one for drones.

The unmanned aerial vehicles have caught worldwide attention for more than just warcraft. With few rules to govern their use, the technology is advancing to let people use drones for both innovation and mischief: everything from smuggling contraband into prisons and taking selfies, to potentially fighting fires, monitoring crops, filming movies, and delivering goods.

And with prices around $300 at stores like Fred Meyer and Verizon Wireless, they’re getting as easy to obtain as a cell phone.

As interest in drones continues to rise, states across the nation are tasked with deciding how to regulate them. Some say Oregon could lead the way.

“The reality is, drones are here to stay,” says Jason Kafoury, a volunteer with a group called Oregonians for Drone Control.

The next step for Oregon, he says, should be to figure out the best way to regulate their private use. In fact, he says, “Oregon could be a model for the nation.”

His group is sponsoring a public forum about drones today, Aug. 7, to explore the issue.

The event starts at 7 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Eliot Chapel, on Southwest 12th Avenue and Salmon Street. Donations are welcome. Local and national speakers will talk about the big issues relating to Oregon’s role in drone policy.

Last year, Oregon passed a law to regulate law enforcement and state agencies to use drones, but does little to govern use by private citizens. There needs to be a plan to deal with this technology, Kafoury says, pointing out that thousands of citizens already have cashed in on drones for their own use. The public should step in and ultimately “help create good policy in Oregon,” he says.

Both sides of the issue

Panelists at the Aug. 7 forum will focus on the global and local impact of drones. They’ll include retired Army Col. Ann Wright; industry leader Brian Whiteside; lecturer and researcher Peter Lumsdaine; and state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, a Southwest Portland Democrat.

The host, Oregonians for Drone Control, began as a result of the 2013 legislation. The group was created last summer by several organizations including the Oregon Progressive Party, of which Kafoury is a member.

Oregon, he says, is “an important spot on a national and international stage,” since locations throughout the state are manufacturing drones. Whether they are used to track grape vineyards in Yamhill County or for hobby, Kafoury says, “we need to have a strong regulatory system,” where we license private drones like cars.

Amy Ciesielka, president of Oregon City tech company APlus Mobile Inc., says “laws are lacking” in Oregon and says states “can’t keep up with the technology.” Domestic Drone Countermeasures is a subsidiary of APlus Mobile, and made headlines for its personal drone detector Kickstarter campaign. The campaign failed to meet its $8,500 goal last month, receiving just $1,435.

Ciesielka says the marketing was there, but considers that “maybe people are concerned about privacy, but just don’t have the money.” She is not actively pursuing more funding for the project. Instead, she has received abundant interest in her detector kits from security companies, particularly in California, for use by celebrities and others, she says: Fear about a loss of privacy “does exist.”

A closer look

Mitch Swecker, director of Oregon’s Department of Aviation, says he sees a growing interest in people wanting drones for personal and commercial use. Last year’s state drone law requested a formal study from the Oregon Department of Aviation, detailing the regulation of drones and how they should be registered. Swecker will submit the report on or before this November.

Swecker compares the challenge of drone regulation to that of an individual bee — flying on its own accord, on its own time. It is easier to regulate and keep track of a plane because it lands in one place, at a scheduled time; the airport being the beehive, he says. Regulating a privately owned drone is like chasing a bee, he says.

The past 12 months, which Swecker deems a “transitional period,” have brought a lot of media attention and some public outrage, he says.

When it comes to privacy, Swecker asks, do you look at the intent of the operator, or do you regulate the device itself?

The devices are everywhere, and privacy and due process is always an issue, he says. A camera phone may not be able to get airborne, he says, but the same privacy issues still exist.

“There are a lot of cameras in public places,” Swecker says. “In essence, this is another type of camera.”

Another take

Wright, famous for quitting as a U.S. diplomat in protest of the Iraq war in 2003, bases her opinion of drones particularly on their use internationally, in war. Wright, one of the four panelists at Thursday night’s forum, says the use of missile-launching drones overseas has resulted in the death of innocent bystanders. She has protested the use of drones by the government on several military bases, from Nevada to New York.

In the United States, her biggest concern relates to privacy and use by law enforcement. While she admits drones might have positive applications, she is concerned that “law enforcement may overstep bounds,” and says she is “not comfortable at all with law enforcement using drones.”

Lumsdaine, also a forum panelist, says as much as we want to say this is an Oregon issue, we have “to look at the larger context.” When people think of the private operation of drones, he says, they think of people down the block, their neighbors or even pizza delivery, but it’s also transnational corporations that want their hands on the cutting-edge technology.

A majority of people are “very leery” of commercial entities operating drones, he says. At minimum, he says, these big corporations need tight regulations.

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