Law enforcement drone use continues to be a top issue for state officials, despite a proposed law limiting their use dying in committee before the Senate could vote on it.

Yesterday, the state’s Joint Information Technology and Biotechnology Committee held a briefing on drone use, indicating the legislature’s interest in answering questions about a technology that has concerned some lawmakers and civil rights advocates.

“Like all new technologies, drones raise new questions and create new opportunities and concerns,” Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s) wrote in a news release. “We want [to] learn more about drone technology and related issues the legislature should consider addressing.”

To Mario Mairena, Unmanned Vehicle Systems International government relations manager, drone technology benefits law enforcement. It can “execute dangerous or difficult tasks safely and efficiently,” he said in his testimony yesterday. The term “drone” skews the public perception of the technology, Mairena said, as it been associated with controversial targeted killing programs abroad. He prefers the term “unmanned aircraft systems,” which he hopes aligns it with more positive applications and public service. 

“Whether it is helping first responders, advancing scientific research, or making business more efficient, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and most importantly, saving lives,” Mairena wrote in his written testimony.

Law enforcement would use systems much different from the ones the military uses abroad, Mairena said. On the home front, the “drones” are much smaller systems, many weighing less than 5 pounds, according to his testimony.  

But the praise for drones is tempered by skepticism. Last month, in a House Judiciary Committee meeting, David Rocah, American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland senior staff attorney, testified on behalf of legislation that places limitations on drone use. Drones are different than the technology law enforcement is used to, Rocah said, and the use of this technology blurs the line as to what requires a warrant for police searches.

“Drones have the capability of leaping over all of those limitations and enable a kind of persistent surveillance that simply isn’t available under other technologies,” Rocah said. “That significant fact, in our view, warrants regulating drones in order to create reasonable limits on their use.”

Drone technology is still in its early stages and has yet to be aggressively employed by law enforcement in the state, but Del. Samuel Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) said at the committee meeting last month, “We shouldn’t wait in this instance until the horse is inside the barn door.”