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Drone bill sails toward Gov. Rick Scott's office

With no hint of opposition, a bill that would limit how law enforcement uses unmanned drones for surveillance is headed for Governor Rick Scott’s office to be signed into law.

SB 92, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, bans local law enforcement officials from using drones without a warrant or threat of a terrorist attack and prohibit information collected by drones to be used as evidence in courts. It received not one “no” vote in its various stops through the Senate. It passed the House by a vote of 117-0 on Wednesday.

A companion bill in the House by Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, was put aside so the House could vote Negron’s bill. Not a bad gesture before the House and Senate begin meetings this week to negotiate the state budget. Negron is the Senate’s appropriations chair.

Scott gave the legislation a rare gubernatorial nod of approval.

“Privacy should be protected and I applaud the House for unanimously passing this bill today," Scott said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. "I applaud Representative Workman and Senator Negron’s efforts on this legislation because this law will ensure the rights of Florida families are protected from the unwarranted use of drones and other unmanned aircraft. I look forward to signing it when it reaches my desk.”

Negron's bill is similar to legislation filed in Congress by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who filibustered the confirmation of CIA director John Brennan over U.S. drone attacks on Americans.

Drones, or unmanned flying aircraft, range in size from 6 inches to 246 feet and weigh between 4 ounces and 25,600 pounds, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their use in the United States. They can be outfitted with cameras so powerful that they can track objects 65 miles away, according to a Florida Senate staff analysis.

This year's legislation by Negron and Workman was popular all along the political spectrum, but it's not clear what, if any, affect it will have on how law enforcement will use the drones. In Florida, the Miami-Dade Police Department became the first major metro police agency to get permission to operate drones two years ago.

Sheriff's deputies in Orange County also have approval to operate two drones. As does Polk County, though the Sheriff's Office there grounded the program, citing costs. But to actually use them requires so many approvals from the FAA that they rarely get flown.

Officials with Miami-Dade police testified that by the time they got the approval during a hostage crisis, the situation was resolved. That's the only time they were close to using a drone, said Lt. Aviel Sanchez.

Negron said he knows the current laws and policies make it difficult to fly drones.

He said he's more concerned about future regulations that might relax the rules. In February 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires the FAA to safely open the nation's airspace to drones by September 2015.