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The drones are coming ... but our laws aren't ready

When a fire broke out in a church in Mesa County, Colo., in September 2011, the police department was ready with its flight team. Strapping a thermal camera to a Draganflyer X6, they flew the drone above the burning building. Together, police and firemen identified hotspots in the structure, and traced the direction in which the fire was spreading.

In 2010, a 5-pound Marcus drone was loaned to forest rangers in West Virginia by University Cincinnati researchers, in order to monitor a controlled burn. Now the group is developing an unmanned system to help control wildfires.

Even the Global Hawk, used by the U.S. Army, has entered civilian life. NOAA and NASA have decked two out with all kinds of sensors to watch storms as they brew. The crafts can endure (comparatively) long missions, letting researchers study large-scale weather patterns, like how grains from a Sahara sandstorm can seed a new hurricane when they reach the ocean.

There's no doubt drones can do a world of good. They can get to places humans can't, and do many jobs quicker — for a fraction of the cost. Benjamin Miller, who manages the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office drone program, estimates that drones can do "30 percent of the missions of manned aviation for 2 percent of the cost." The two Mesa County drones cost $25 for each hour they are used.

But state-level bills cropping up across the U.S. could ground virtuous drones used in rescue and research. Meanwhile, privacy advocates and legal experts disagree over how effective the proposed legislation really will be.

In Oregon, one proposed bill requires that anyone who operates a drone, whether it's a local police department or a hobbyist, get a license from the Oregon Department of Aviation first.

An Indiana state bill wouldn't let a news station survey traffic on a highway, or let law enforcement send out an unmanned search party for lost hikers, the American Civil Liberties Union's Allie Bohm explained to NBC News. And a Nebraska bill wouldn't allow law enforcement to gather evidence or information via drone except in the case of a terrorist threat.

Two bills on the governor's desk in Virginia propose drone restrictions, but exclude select cases, such as search and rescue. Same for a bill proposed in Massachusetts last December, which would require police to get a warrant before sending a drone to collect aerial photography or thermal data as part of a criminal investigation.

Privacy advocates told NBC News they support this type of drone law.

"With drones, we have arrived at a moment when it is technologically possible to engage in constant mass aerial surveillance," the ACLU's Jay Stanley told NBC News. But don't surveillance cameras do some of that already? "We don't like those either," Stanley added, "But I think that drones raise the stakes considerably from there."

There's currently a trade-off between how maneuverable a drone can be and how long it can stay in the air. You can't combine the endurance of the solar-panelled QinetiQ Zephyr — which stayed aloft in the Nevada desert for two straight weeks, but whose view can be blocked by clouds — with the steady gaze of the Pentagon’s 1.8-gigapixel drone camera. Not yet.

The solar-powered Zephyr stayed in the air for 336 hours and 21 minutes.
The solar-powered Zephyr stayed in the air for 336 hours and 21 minutes.QinetiQ

One drone that captured the attention of Wednesday's senate hearing was AeroVironment's Nano Hummingbird, which can fly sideways or vertically by flapping two tiny wings. It weighs less than a AA battery, but records video. Not especially well, mind you, but cameras are always improving.

Regardless of current limitations, drones great and small still give law enforcement more reach than it had before. Yet while new legislation will surely be required, existing law may address some concerns.

"I believe that existing frameworks will provide more protection than is generally appreciated," John Villasenor a policy expert with UCLA and the Brookings Institution, told NBC News via email. By that he means that, when drones start snooping, courts will uphold certain privacies thanks to the Fourth Amendment.

Others say that current laws may be insufficient, but targeting drones misses the point.

“Whether data's being collected by Google or from cellphones or bank cameras or traffic cameras, I don't think the medium is the essence," Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents drone manufacturers, told NBC News. "The question is what's being done with it, who's using it, who's collecting it, where's it being stored, where is it being deleted."

Toscano's organization may wish to keep drones out of legislation, but legal experts agree with the premise.

"Privacy law is not keeping up with surveillance technology, and drones are helping us see that," Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington told NBC News. "But it's not limited to drones," he said, citing street cameras and vans like the ones driven by Google's mapping team.

"I think the good reason to get the privacy laws right here is to avail ourselves of this kind of technology," Calo said. And there's no time like the present, as the FAA has been asked to fully integrate drones into U.S. airspace by 2015.

More on drone policies: Lawmakers voice concerns on drone privacy questions

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.