SPRINGFIELD — As the Obama administration comes under fire for its use of unmanned drones in foreign lands, a state senator is pressing to have Illinois join the national debate on whether states should regulate drones to ensure the high-tech snooping isn't used to invade the privacy of ordinary citizens on U.S. soil.
Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss has introduced legislation that would require police to get a search warrant before using a drone to gather evidence. Along with banning the use of lethal and nonlethal weapons on the drones — except in emergencies — the proposal would require information a drone gathers to be destroyed unless it is part of an investigation.
Under the legislation, Illinois would step up to combat the issue of drones flying over U.S. airspace. President Barack Obama signed a Federal Aviation Administration mandate last year requesting the agency integrate unmanned aircraft into the national system.
With the possibility of drones becoming the latest aircraft traversing the skies, Biss said this is "the exact moment states should be looking into" unmanned aircraft legislation.
"We're heading into a world where technology surveillance is unreal," the Evanston lawmaker said.
More than 20 states are pursuing similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While some states are trying to regulate unmanned aircraft use, others are trying to impose moratoriums that ban them, Biss said.
Virginia lawmakers approved a two-year moratorium on the aircraft in the state last week to allow time for a study. The legislation awaits the governor's signature.
In Illinois, authorities in Cook and Champaign counties are considering the use of drones to combat crime.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is in the "exploratory stages" of looking into drone technology for future operations, spokesman Frank Bilecki said. If the county were to employ any drones, they would be "specifically for law enforcement use" and not to invade personal privacy, Bilecki said.
Dart's thinking is that drones would be cheaper to use and cost less taxpayer money than using helicopters for aerial operations, Bilecki said. A small, unmanned aircraft used for search and rescue can cost on average between $38,000 and $50,000, much less than in years past, said James Hill, president of AirCover Integrated Solutions, a California-based drone manufacturer.
To gain traction at the Capitol, Biss potentially might have to overcome resistance from law enforcement leaders. To that end, Biss said he's talking with police chiefs, the Illinois State Police and other police agencies to iron out any wrinkles.
The American Civil Liberties Union thinks the time is ripe to look at drone regulations.
"Technology is changing," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU's Illinois chapter. "And the idea is we need to get ahead of the technology to be better prepared."