By Brendan Sasso
House Judiciary Committee lawmakers discussed legislation to restrict the use of drones in domestic airspace during a field forum at Rice University in Texas on Thursday.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who chaired the forum of the Subcommittee on Crime, urged Congress to take up his Preserving American Privacy Act, which would only allow police to use drones with a warrant and to investigate a felony.
Drones are cheaper to build and fly than manned aircraft, making them more useful to the government for aerial surveillance. Domestic drones are now uncommon, but the Federal Aviation Administration has predicted that within 20 years, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies.
At Thursday's forum, lawmakers, academics and privacy advocates worried that widespread drone use would pose a serious threat to privacy.
"Persistently monitoring Americans' movements can reveal their political identity, their religious views and even how safe your marriage is, how strong it is," Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said.
"Both parties cast a skeptical eye toward drone surveillance in law enforcement," he added.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) emphasized that he believes drones are essential for killing suspected terrorists overseas and monitoring the border, and he said drones have a "real benefit and use" for law enforcement. But he added that he would support legislation to limit their use in domestic airspace.
Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, explained that drones can be equipped with surveillance technologies such as night-vision cameras, body scanners and license plate readers.
"Drones should only be used if subject to a powerful framework that regulates their use in order to avoid abuse and invasions of privacy," he said.
The lawmakers and witnesses agreed that domestic drones should not be equipped with weapons, like the military drones that fly over Afghanistan.
But David Crump, a professor at the Houston University Law Center, said Poe should revise his legislation to allow for more uses of drones. He said the law should make it clear that police can use drones in hostage situations, car chases and for security around sensitive government buildings or officials. He predicted that as drones become more widespread, a university may want to use a drone to televise views of a sports game.
Gretchen West, executive vice president for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, a drone lobbying group, argued that much of the fear over drones is overblown and that current technology limits how long they can stay in the air. She said allowing drones in domestic airspace could create 23,000 jobs by 2025 and they are useful for patrolling the border and providing security for critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines.
Todd Humphreys, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted that drones in the future could be as small as insects and able to crawl around a person's house.
"Wow, now you're really scaring me," McCaul said.