COLUMBIA (WACH) -- As South Carolina competes against other states to host one of the Federal Aviation Administration's six new drone testing sites, legislation is working its way through the State House to regulate just how broadly the unmanned aircraft can be used.
When researchers at the University of South Carolina are finished, catalyst powder will combine with jet fuel to allow a miniature unmanned aircraft to fly silently for hours.
"Currently, the battery operated drones typically fly one-and-a-half to two hours, while the fuel operated drones using our technology could fly up to ten hours," said Dr. Jochen Lauterbach, professor and endowed chair at USC's Department of Chemical Engineering.
The research is being conducted to improve military drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, but some are concerned about what that could mean for individual privacy.
"These vehicles, which are commonly called drones, are going to be smaller and smaller and cheaper to acquire; and they'll be able to go into houses and garages and backyards," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
To make sure drones like the Richland County Sheriff's Department's radio controlled helicopter do not violate civil rights, Rep. Dan Hamilton and Rep. Greg Delleney passed a bill through a House subcommittee last week to implement usage restrictions, image retention restrictions and auditing.
"Estimates are by 2015 there will be 30,000 drones in the air, and if we don't have some kind of regulation around those, things will be running rampant; and so what we are doing is just putting some restrictions on how they are used by state and local agencies," said Hamilton.
While law enforcement agencies would be required to have and inspection warrant for the use of their drones, the bill would exempt universities like USC from that requirement so that cutting edge drone research like that in the Department of Chemical Engineering can continue unabated.
Legislators are hoping the bill gets a full judiciary committee hearing next week.
In the State Senate, Sen. Tom Davis has also introduced a bill that would restrict drone use.