The transformative potential of new aerospace technologies repeatedly became the focus of debate for the California Assembly on Wednesday.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed bills to cultivate California's burgeoning private spaceflight industry and to give more clarity to local agencies hoping to use unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, commonly referred to as drones.
"The right answer is to embrace this technology because it is the future," said Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, after noting that other states have weighed outright bans on drones.
Assembly Bill 1327, sponsored by Gorell and two others, establishes the situations in which sheriff departments and state agencies can deploy drones. Law enforcement could use drones to monitor parks and forest fires without a warrant, for example, and non-law enforcement entities could obtain and use drones as long as they notify the public.
"Drones are going to be extremely important for hot pursuit, which is allowed in this bill, for search and rescue and, when you get a warrant, for continuous surveillance" of a location, said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, a joint author.
The bill also addresses some of the privacy concerns spurred by the increasing prevalence of unmanned systems by requiring agencies to destroy drone-collected data within six months if it is not part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation. It would ban weaponized drones.
A separate measure by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, would codify a ten-year tax break for properties used by the private space flight industry.
"With this bill California can grow and permanently establish this exciting new industry in our state," Muratsuchi said.
While members from both parties overwhelmingly backed Muratsuchi's bill, it drew criticism from Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who warned about enshrining a tax break that could become difficult to dislodge.
A former San Francisco assessor-recorder, Ting referenced California's 1972 decision to offer tax relief to the then-nascent software industry, a decision Ting says has come back to haunt policymakers. He noted that removing tax exemptions require a two-thirds majority.
"I'm not saying that we shouldn't help SpaceX or the space industry," Ting said, referencing a Hawthorne-based firm, but he warned about setting a precedent in which "we'll be back here for some other giveaway for some other industry."
PHOTO: The Yamaha RMAX remote controlled helicopter sprays water over a vineyard at UC Davis' Oakville station in Oakville on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/ Randall Benton.