Commentary: Drone debate lands in Texas

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 16, 2013 

Drone phobia is upon us.

Two years after Arlington bought two battery-operated miniature helicopters, some folks are worried that Mayor Bob Cluck wants to fly them overhead for random begonia inspections.

For triggering this sudden panic about ordinary police surveillance, we can thank former Texan Rand Paul, who took to the U.S. Senate floor for half a day last week to frighten C-SPAN2's mostly older viewers about Evil Robot Spy Planes.

In Arlington, City Councilman Robert Rivera told our reporter that the 5-foot-long helicopters are not exactly stealth aircraft.

"This is visible to anyone who looks up," he said.

"It's flown at the same level as a kite."

Arlington police recently won the Federal Aviation Administration's OK to fly the mini-copters anywhere south of Interstate 30, but only on a specific mission, such as search-and-rescue or for a closer view of a crime or hostage scene.

The craft's operator must keep eye contact. Federal rules don't allow any sort of ammunition or weapon.

Except for less noise, it's not much different than having a police helicopter hovering overhead.

But this doesn't satisfy some Arlington residents, a few of whom have been railing against the copters for years.

In the 2011 City Council election, one of Rivera's challengers scraped political bottom.

"Do not allow City Hall to use the same tactics used to watch terrorists in the Middle East!" Zack Maxwell wrote in an email.

He wound up with 9 percent of the vote.

But the issue resurfaced this year, first when Time magazine headlined a February issue "Rise of the Drones" and added the ominous headline: "They are America's global fighting machines. What happens when they're unleashed at home?"

Then the Texas Legislature rushed in to help muddy the debate.

State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, filed a bill outlawing the use of an unmanned vehicle (the "Google car") or aircraft for photos, except by police with a warrant or pursuing a felony suspect.

In other words, no Cowboys Stadium parking-lot security cam or searches for missing children.

Gooden said House Bill 912 was inspired by a voter with a rancher neighbor whose private cattle-herd surveillance drone was flying too far from the herd.

"Texans have a right to privacy on their own property," he said.

Gooden said he supports police surveillance, but only over public property or in emergencies.

He doesn't want officers "peeking in your back windows and filming your every move."

"I don't want them over my land," he said.

In the conspiracy-minded Twittersphere, they're called the "Obama Spy Drones."

In Arlington, they're just Two Drones Over Texas.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service