TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A new Florida law taking effect will broaden the use of drones by law enforcement and other state or local agencies to watch crowds of 50 or more in certain circumstances.

The main point of the bill is to define specific ways and times to use drones, though it does explicitly “expand the authorized uses” of the remotely controlled tech to a wider list of entities.

Specifically, SB 44 will allow police and fire departments, and political subdivisions among others, to use drones to assist with traffic management and “gain an aerial perspective of a crowd of 50 or more” people. However, the agency using the drones will not be allowed to issue traffic infractions based on the images or videos they capture.

The drones will also be allowed to be used for evidence collection at crime scenes and traffic crashes, according to the new law.

The way SB 44 is written defines the exceptions to not using drones, rather than creating an explicit list of reasons to use them. The law also requires that agencies use or adopt policies and procedures with guidelines for drone usage.

New rules to fly by

For law enforcement agencies, new rules have to be included for policies about:

  • Surveying crowds of 50 or more from the air
  • Storing, retaining, and releasing drone images or video
  • Addressing personal safety and constitutional protections of the people they’re observing with drones
  • How heads of law enforcement agencies must give written authorization to use drones and keep a copy on file
  • Using drones to assist with traffic management, but CANNOT issue traffic citations based on drone footage
  • Helping agencies collect evidence at crime scenes and traffic crash scenes

For state agencies or political subdivisions, which are government entities created to meet specific obligations, drones can be used for:

  • Assessing damage from flooding, wildfires, or other natural disasters that can be declared state emergencies
  • Vegetation and wildlife management on publicly owned land or water

Fire departments can also use drones to “perform tasks within the scope and practice authorized under their certifications.

New drone security standards

By law, there are new security standards for government agencies using drones in Florida, too.

By Jan. 1, 2022, the Florida Department of Management Services will have to come to an agreement with the state chief information officer, and publish on the department’s website, a list of approved drone manufacturers that agencies can buy drones from.

An approved manufacturer will have to provide “appropriate safeguards” for privacy, integrity, and availability of the data collected, transmitted or stored by drones used by law enforcement and other state operators.

The department will also be able to consult with state and federal agencies about relevant guidance when developing the list of approved manufacturers. Starting on the day they publish their list of approved manufacturers, the law says government agencies can only buy from those approved companies.

By July 1, 2022, agencies using drones from manufacturers that were not approved will have to submit a plan for retiring them. The DMS will have to adopt rules to identify the requirements for a comprehensive plan to discontinue using unapproved drones.

As of Jan. 1, 2023, all government agencies must stop using drones that were not produced by an approved manufacturer.