The increasingly prevalent little flying machines called drones are attracting a lot of attention across the country, sometimes causing more than a little concern or suspicion — and generating a rash of state laws to regulate these devices officially known as unmanned aircraft systems or unmanned aerial vehicles.

A bill passed in the final day of this year’s General Assembly will inaugurate statewide regulation of drones in Georgia. HB 779 pre-empts and voids all local ordinances adopted after April 1 — thus exempting the city of Augusta which approved the state’s only local drone ordinance on March 30, just in time to ban drones from the Masters. The ordinance prohibits drones from flying where 100 or more people might gather and regulates uses by utilities and law enforcement in Augusta.

There’s much more to HB 779 than regulations, but first the backdrop for the bill:

Non-commercial drones are multiplying at a fast clip. After the Federal Aviation Administration set up a registry for recreational drone owners last December, about 406,000 people signed up. And the FAA estimates that hobbyists will purchase 1.9 million of the little flying machines this year with annual sales hitting 4.3 million by 2020. Sounds like the skies will be virtually filled with drones.

This means more drones are flying — illegally — into commercial airspace, far higher than the 400-foot ceiling and the limit of five miles from an airport. The FAA said in its latest release that airspace drone sightings more than doubled in the six months between Aug. 21, 2015, and Jan. 31 this year compared to all of 2014. In the six months, 583 sightings were reported by airline pilots, air traffic controllers and citizens, versus 238 sightings in 2014.

Of course, drones are best known for their use against terrorists and other enemy targets by the U.S. military in other countries. But domestically, the UAS or UAVs have numerous applications, including law enforcement, land surveillance, wildlife tracking, search and rescue operations, disaster response, border patrol and photography, per the National Conference of State Legislatures which tracks legislation. Before Georgia’s HB 779 passed, 26 states had enacted laws and another six states had adopted resolutions addressing drone issues.

HB 779 provides privacy protection, including the requirement of a search warrant signed by a judge for gathering evidence in a private place or relating to a private individual, with exceptions for imminent danger to life, an active search for fugitive or escapee or monitoring hostage situation; or active search for a missing person. And while the bill pre-empts or voids local drone-banning ordinances, it does allow local governments to ban drones on public property except for commercial purposes.

That brings us to the “rest of the story.” HB 779 creates the Georgia Unmanned Vehicle Systems Commission to be composed of 20 members including legislators, state officials, law enforcement, the National Guard, city and county officials and representatives of the Georgia Ports Authority and the aerospace industry.

The commission is charged with identifying the benefits of UAS research and development to Georgia, taking a comprehensive look at the UAS industry here and other steps aimed at marketing Georgia to the industry.

The sponsor of HB 779, Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, chaired the House study committee that worked on the issue last year. In the Senate, the bill was carried by Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, who sat in on the study group’s meetings. While security and privacy are priorities, he said: “We uncovered a lot of tremendous issues, good issues, from business opportunities for agriculture, for commercial businesses, for the ports, as well as the opportunity to become the premier location in the United States to manufacture drones and do the research.”

Remember the saying about turning problems into opportunities? That’s what the Georgia UVS Commission is all about. We’ll see if it flies.

Don McKee is a Cobb County resident. He can be reached at ​dmckee9613@aol.com.

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