Lawrence city commissioners aren't ready to create a policy for drone use in the city limits, but they did commit to compromise with a growing group of residents concerned about the new technology.
More than 20 people wearing stickers that read "Protect Privacy Liberty" showed up during the public comment section of the commission's weekly meeting urging the city to adopt a policy limiting the city's ability to add drones to its vehicle fleet or police department.
Commissioners said the turnout was remarkable, given that the city doesn't have any plans to buy or use drones in the future.
"I guess this just shows how active people are in the community when there is even a chance people's civil liberties would be infringed," Mayor Mike Dever said.
But commissioners balked at the idea of adopting a proposed resolution that would have placed a moratorium on city drone purchases until the state comes up with statewide regulations for the devices. Instead, commissioners said they would be willing to craft a simple statement that said the city has no intention of using drones for the foreseeable future, and that if the city does pursue owning a drone that it would develop a formal policy before using it.
Members of the group Kansans for Responsible Drone Use said they were pleased commissioners were willing to at least put some safeguards in place.
"I think it is a definite step forward," said Patrick Wilbur, vice chair of the Douglas County Libertarian Party and a member of Kansans for Responsible Drone Use. "What we really wanted to do was create a public dialogue about the issue."
The coalition has a broad base of membership. Just recently the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri joined the coalition voicing concern about drone usage. The Douglas County Republican Party also has joined the group.
"They have great potential to violate civil rights and the Constitution," said Kathleen Ammel, secretary of the Douglas County Republican Party. Plus, she said the drones could create other problems such as noise pollution, visual pollution and the possibility of the devices crashing into crowds.
City commissioners acknowledged drone usage in the city could create some problems, but they said they didn't want to try to write a policy on how city government should use drones until such time that the city actually is seriously considering using drones.
"If we owned a drone or we were going to buy a drone, we would need a drone policy," City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. "But we don't own one and we don't have any interest in having one. I just think this is all very premature."
City commissioners said they didn't know when, if ever, the city would be looking to add a drone to its fleet of vehicles. While they said they couldn't ever imagine owning a weaponized drone, they didn't rule out that practical uses would develop for them. Cities have mentioned drones potentially being useful for everything from reading water meters to surveying dangerous structure fires.
Only a handful of cities have adopted drone use policies, with Charlotesville, Va., the most prominent example. Members of the Kansans for Responsible Drone Use began asking commissioners to consider a policy in May.
"I have just had a bit of a problem spending valuable time on this when we we know there are other issues that are impacting us more now," Dever said.
But Dever said he would be fine with signing a simple statement that the city would adopt a policy before using drones. Commissioners directed City Commissioner Mike Amyx to sit down with key members of the group within the next couple of weeks to draft a statement that could be brought back to the commission for consideration.