COLUMBIA — Tom Fernandez said he began using drones as a hobby to give his mind a break from law school.
Two years ago the hobby turned into a Lowcountry business, and Fernandez is now CEO of Skyview Aerial Solutions, which offers mapping and other real estate services provided by small drones.
He came to the Statehouse Wednesday, drone in hand, along with other drone operators to talk to a Senate panel about a bill that would regulate drones in South Carolina, provide penalties for those who send drones over other's property without permission and require search warrants for law enforcement's use of drones.
Sen. Greg Hembree, an Horry County Republican and former prosecutor chairing the panel, said the subcommittee will study the issue and watch for federal regulations expected soon before taking any action.
"We have a lot of testimony we want to take," Hembree told the audience. "There are a lot of issues to be considered in this field of legislation and we're waiting on the federal government."
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who has partnered with some Republicans on the bill, said the aim of the bill is to help the law keep pace with technology. He said drones have been used to help the public but they also have raised a myriad of privacy questions.
"If your neighbor has a drone, do you want it flying over your house?" he asked. "Do you want someone you don't want with video technology over your pool while your family is out there enjoying themselves? Do you want your nosy neighbor flying a drone over your house when you have a dinner party they weren't invited to?"
The bill would penalize operators of drones flying with video or recording equipment over someone else's property without their consent. First offenses could bring a $200 fine or 30 days in jail, penalties would escalate upon subsequent convictions.
Law enforcement, under the bill, could not use drones to gather evidence without first obtaining a search warrant, though that would not apply in counter terrorism activities or if someone's life is in imminent danger.
An aggravated party in cases in which a search warrant is not obtained could bring civil action against police, under the bill, and the evidence in such an instance would not be admissible in court.
Sheheen said he wants the bill to start a conversation on exactly how to regulate the unmanned aircraft.
Commercial users of drones told senators they are wary of such regulations.
Fernandez said he doesn't think fines or jail terms are necessary, suggesting the industry find a way to police itself. He told the panel the penalties seem excessive and the language of the bill is overly broad
"I think it needs to evolve to a more reasonable bill," he said.
Rachel McConoughey, an attorney who works with Skyview, told senators that she saw multiple problems with the state attempting to regulate drones.
She said both Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration are working on regulations that could pre-empt what the Legislature might devise.
She said the state already has laws on the books against creating a nuisance or using a recording device to invade someone's privacy. And identifying who owns the drone would not be easy, she said, since those on the ground might not be able to spot any number on the craft and not all drones are required to have numbers displayed on the outside.
Also, she asked, how would a property owner on the ground know if a drone had crossed the boundary of their property?.
Fernandez told senators of a plane crash in which Skyview helped authorities map the area of the crash which was in a rice field. The drone, he said, did the work in a matter of hours that would have taken emergency teams days. And in doing so they had to cross property without being able to contact the owners first. Should that action be criminalized, he asked.
Fernandez told senators that his company almost always asks property owners first if they can fly over their property and can fly precisely on boundaries with cameras pointed inward so as not to take photos of others' property. Justin Sellers, the owner of SellersImaging of North Augusta, said most commercial drones come equipped with digital files that act as an aircraft's "black box," enabling investigators to determine exactly where a drone has flown.
Sen. Karl Allen, a Greenville Democrat, wanted to know what the drone operators would do if they inadvertently photographed evidence of a crime below. Would they provide that to law enforcement, he asked. Some of the operators said they would not without a warrant or subpoena but noted that aircraft already fly over homes and police in those aircraft can take action based on what they see. They said peering into buildings or through windows would be a violation of privacy.
McConoughey said even she would not want drones flying over her daughter sunbathing in her back yard.
Hembree said the committee would hold more hearings to take more testimony.
"Our purpose is to try and find that sweet spot between legitimate uses of this amazing technology and personal privacy and that's where we're headed," he said.