New laws on drones could prohibit beneficial agricultural applications

Last year, legislation was introduced to restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Oklahoma, a proposal which is likely to reappear in the 2014 legislative session.   

The lawmakers who introduced the ACLU-backed bill are to be lauded for attempting to safeguard citizens’ privacy rights and ensure that unmanned aerial vehicles are not used to enhance the power and surveillance capacities of government. However, in attempting to provide these safeguards, the proposal also imposes restrictions so severe that they effectively prohibit legitimate uses of the technology by entrepreneurs and other citizens.     

The bill has met resistance from James Grimsley, the president of the Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma, and also from the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman

Unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as “drones,” have received something of a bad rap because of their use by the military and police organizations. What isn’t as well-known are the many potential benefits that the technologies could bring to the farmers and citizens of Oklahoma. For example:

  • Aiding in search and rescue after tornadoes and other natural disasters.
  • Monitoring the location and health of cattle.
  • Predicting the yield and water needs of agricultural crops.
  • Ensuring the proper functioning of oil and natural gas rigs and pipelines.
  • More cheaply delivering packages to remote areas of the state.

At issue are concerns over privacy and weaponization. Those are legitimate concerns. However, as Grimsley notes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already regulates the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and prevents the use of weapons on drones. Privacy concerns are a legitimate worry, but the restrictions in the proposed Oklahoma legislation are so onerous as to likely prevent the future use of unmanned aerial vehicles for any beneficial purpose in the state. 

Oklahoma agricultural producers operate in a global, competitive environment. The ability to compete with Mexico, Canada, and other countries – not to mention the challenge of producing enough food for a fast-growing world – will require technological advancement. 

New technologies should not be allowed to trample on citizens’ rights. But regulatory zeal should not override farmers’ and ranchers’ access to promising technologies. 

*This piece was cross-posted at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs site