The federal government is working on new rules that could expand permits for drones in the coming years.
The federal government is working on new rules that could expand permits for drones in the coming years. - 
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Call it the week of the drone.  Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration picked half a dozen sites for exploring drone tech—with an eye toward commercial development.  While those sites start exploring the possibilities of drone tech for business, the state of Illinois is about to limit the use of drones by law enforcement.  A new state law there takes effect tomorrow. It says state and local cops can’t use drones for surveillance without a warrant.  

Federal agencies like the FBI and Border Patrol already use drones.  Cops in Mesa County, Colo., have a couple. But they’re not routine police technology yet.

That's the idea, says Illinois State Senator Daniel Biss, who sponsored the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act. "The philosophy is, put the regulation in place before every major law-enforcement entity is doing it," he says, "so you don’t find yourself living in a Wild West world, before it’s too late."

For instance, Chicago’s already got a big network of stationary surveillance cameras, and there’s no going back there. 

Seven other states have passed drone laws so far.  University of Washington Law professor Ryan Calo, an expert on privacy and robotics, agrees that this is a good time to set some rules.

Border patrol has the kind of military-grade Predator drones that can hover around all day. Local cops, not so much.  Yet.

"By and large, what the police are getting are these quadricopters, that can only hover in the air for 15 or 20 minutes," says Calo. "And so the uses are pretty limited for now."

But the technology is getting better all the time. With the FAA allowing commercial development to go forward, that’s likely to accelerate.  

Calo thinks drones are just one example of technology that's moving faster, so far, than laws that protect privacy.  "We need a fundamental re-examination of some of the fundamental doctrines of privacy law," he says.  "Like the idea that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public." 

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann