6 ways states are using and restricting drones

Sharks, weeds and parades, oh my.
An agricultural drone sprays liquid as it flies overhead during a counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS) demonstration at the Department of Homeland Security’s St. Elizabeths Campus in Washington, Thursday, June 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

State and local governments are finding new and creative ways to deploy drones, as the eye-in-the sky technology becomes more sophisticated.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, are an enticing option because they are much cheaper to buy and fly than planes or helicopters. They are also versatile. 

At the same time, concerns about misuse and even Chinese spying have prompted some states to impose new restrictions on drones. 

While the technology is ubiquitous now, it has only been in the last decade that state legislators have had to grapple with how to regulate drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of 2021, 44 states had passed drone-related laws.

Here are six ways state lawmakers and governors sought to expand or restrict the use drones in 2023:

Shark patrol 

New York will deploy 10 new drones this summer — for a total of 18 — to monitor state park beaches on Long Island for sharks. Yes, sharks. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced the drone patrols in May as part of an effort to boost surveillance following an increase in shark sightings last summer. One of the new drones is equipped with thermal imaging technology and is large enough to drop flotation devices to swimmers in distress. 

“Over the past two seasons, we’ve learned that drones are the most effective mechanism to detect environmental conditions that could attribute to shark activity,” New York State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said in a statement. “We are expanding patrols with drones and watercraft to help prevent the rare occurrences of negative shark interactions with swimmers, surfers, surf fishermen, and boaters at our beaches.” 

While the mix of sharks and swimmers is a classic summer blockbuster movie plot, sharks rarely attack humans. Worldwide there are an average of 70 unprovoked shark bite incidents per year, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File.  Florida had the most last year (16), followed by New York (8), Hawaii (5) and California (4). 

On the Southern California coast, drone surveillance recently found great white sharks swimming in proximity to humans 97% of the time. Check out the video here. (Note: No humans were harmed in the making of it.)

Weed killer

Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has experimented with myriad ways to use drones, from tracking upland game and rabbits to surveying fish passage structures to monitoring butterfly habitat. One new way WDFW is deploying them stands out. Call it the drone-as-crop-duster model. 

The agency announced in May it hired a contractor to fly a drone over 2,765 acres of estuary lands in the Skagit Wildlife Area north of Seattle to identify and spray noxious weeds such as nonnative cattail

“To my knowledge, WDFW has never sprayed with a drone,” David Heimer, the agency’s noxious weed coordinator, told the Washington State Standard. The advantage of the drone, Heimer explained, is that it can access marshy delta habitat that weed sprayers on the ground cannot reach. 

Next up, WDFW plans to use a drone to spray yellow starthistle, another invasive species, in southeast Washington, the Standard reported.

Parade security

A year ago, a gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., killing seven people and wounding nearly 50. As the one-year anniversary of the tragedy approached, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed a law that will allow police to use drones to keep an eye on special events such as parades hosted by a government entity, like a city or town. 

“It’s simple: drones will save lives. We can’t let another community feel the sheer terror and heartbreak that Highland Park still feels a year later,” said state Sen. Julie Morrison (D), a sponsor of the bill, who was walking in the parade with her family when the shooting happened. 

The new law, which amends the Illinois “Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act,” comes with many parameters, including that police post public notices of their intent to use a drone at an event. Also, the law prohibits drones from being used at political marches or demonstrations.

No Chinese drones 

Citing national security concerns, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee recently banned public agencies from purchasing or deploying drones made in China or other countries viewed as hostile to the U.S. Legislation was also considered in Alabama

The bans are part of a broader anti-China backlash that also targeted TikTok and resulted in states placing new restrictions on foreign ownership of farmlands and other property. A key target of the drone ban is China-based DJI, a key supplier along with Autel to U.S. law enforcement agencies. 

“I have no doubt to [DJI’s] efficacy and doubt to their user-friendliness, but at the end of the day we have to put state and national security first,” Arkansas Rep. Brit McKenzie (R) told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in May. 

Under the Arkansas law, police departments have until 2027 to stop using foreign-made drones. The Florida ban, enacted by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), took effect in April and resulted in police agencies grounding hundreds of drones, according to Local10.com.

Livestock surveillance ban

Iowa lawmakers considered legislation this year to bar drone operators from flying over or surveilling feedlots and other agricultural animal facilities. The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that the legislation was aimed at animal rights groups. 

“[T]his bill is a step in the right direction to protect Iowa’s farmers and ranchers as they work every day to protect the safety and security of their livestock, and the operations they take pride in providing the safest, most abundant food supply in the world,” said Rep. Derek Wulf (R), the bill’s House sponsor. 

The House passed the measure but it died in the Senate. Previously, courts have struck down so-called “ag gag” laws that bar undercover videos of farming operations. Animal welfare activists use the videos to draw attention to the treatment of animals in commercial agricultural operations.

Sex offender prohibition

Lawmakers in Arkansas do not think drones and sex offenders are a good combination. This year they passed a law that bars Level 3 and 4 offenders from purchasing, possessing or using a drone that has the ability to capture images. A violation is a Class D felony. 

Rep. Brian Evans (R) said he sponsored the bill after constituents complained that a Level 3 sex offender had crashed a drone on their property. 

“What if he was trying [to] figure out when Mom and Dad are not home? What if he was trying to figure out how many teenage girls and young boys are out in [the] backyard playing when Mom and Dad are gone?” Evans asked his colleagues at a committee hearing on the bill in January. 

While the bill cleared the legislature on nearly unanimous votes, one state lawmaker expressed concerns about the ramifications. 

“It’s criminalizing a person’s ability to do things that are basically fine under our society’s standards,” said Sen. Clarke Tucker (D), according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.