Drones are coming to U.S. airspace - commercial drones, law-enforcement drones, maybe even pizza-delivery drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that tens of thousands of drones will be operating over the U.S. in coming years. Congress has given the FAA until Sept. 30, 2015, to develop a plan to integrate the unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. airspace.
The FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center is in the running to be one of six drone testing sites nationwide. That would be a tremendous boon to the region's economy - and put New Jersey in the forefront on drone issues.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Legislature, like lawmakers in more than 30 other states, is wrestling with how to best regulate these unmanned aircraft, balancing the obvious privacy concerns with the equally obvious public-safety and commercial benefits.
Earlier this week, the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee approved one of the bills that have been introduced - a sensible measure sponsored by Sen. Nicholas J. Sacco, D-Hudson.
The toughest of the proposals would ban the use of drones unless there is a "credible threat" of a terrorist attack. Another measure would allow their use only in a declared emergency or natural disaster. A third bill would require police to obtain a warrant from a judge before deploying a drone.
Sacco's bill is more lenient but has enough safeguards in it to have won the support of the American Civil Liberties Union's state chapter.
His measure would prohibit a law-enforcement agency from using a drone unless the agency's chief (more on this in a moment) has "reasonable grounds" to believe the drone could gather information relevant to an ongoing investigation. The bill would also allow the use of drones in search-and-rescue operations and to monitor fires.
Any audio or visual recordings unrelated to any ongoing investigation must be discarded within 14 days, under the measure. Annual reports also would have to be filed with the state attorney general documenting all uses of a drone. And no drone flown over New Jersey could be armed.
We have at least one concern, however, with Sacco's proposal. Local police chiefs should not be the ones authorizing drone use by their own agencies. That authority must reside in a more neutral party - the county prosecutor perhaps.
But it is wise to begin considering rules for the use of drones by law-enforcement authorities, as Sacco's bill does. Additional issues will certainly arise as drone technology takes off. But addressing privacy concerns is the first step.