There are high stakes in the sky as the role of unmanned aerial vehicles in public safety becomes more important, prompting questions about the use of drones in Arizona and their security against potential threats.

On Feb. 1st, Sen. David Farnsworth (R) Dist. 10 introduced Senate bill 1500 to regulate the use of UAVs, particularly drones, in Arizona state projects in order to strengthen security against “countries of concern,” including China, Russia and Iran among others. This bill is similar to Florida’s state-level rule banning non-approved drones passed in April 2023.

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Senate bill 1500 is currently in the committee stage, with its latest successful advancement through the Senate minority caucus on Feb. 13th.

Key provisions of the bill could affect the future acquisition of drones from state agencies, including police and fire departments, along with private companies who subcontract drones from state agencies. 

Farnsworth, a Mesa resident, declined to issue a statement regarding this bill.

Arizona state agencies buy most of their drones from DJI Technology, a China-based manufacturer.

Drone expert and Arizona State University professor Timothy Takahashi said the potential risks associated with foreign-made drone technology is that the drones could contain malware that could be activated by a hostile actor.

“The idea is that such equipment might have a ‘back door’ that is accessible to foreign entities.  In a time of national political crisis, such a back door could be used to disable such machines, use them to spread malware onto other computer systems, or even use them to surveil,” Takahashi said.

On Feb. 5th, the Senate Transportation, Technology and Missing Children Committee overwhelmingly approved or 86% members of the committee approved the measure. Only one member of the TTMC, Sen. Christine Marsh (D) Dist. 4, voted against the bill.

Marsh said the bill could have adverse effects on Arizona’s police and fire departments, given their dependence on drone technology for various public safety applications.

“We would be taking one more tool away from our already underfunded police departments. We’re taking away the ability for them to find missing people and to get an air view of our situation on the ground that can be dangerous, or worse, because it could be deadly,” Marsh said in an interview.

The City of Phoenix’s police and fire departments have logged over 1,900 operational deployments of drone flights for various official tasks since 2022. The scope of these tasks includes the search and location of suspects and missing persons, mapping areas, assistance at events, response to residential fires and more.

In 2022, the Phoenix Police Department allocated $516,000 from its budget to establish a drone program. Similarly, the city’s fire department projected a $250,000 expense for its own drone initiative, funded by the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget.

Sergeant Phil Krynsky, a public information officer with the Phoenix Police Department said the department could not discuss a matter under consideration by the legislature, but a recent article in Forbes outlined how the Florida legislation has negatively impacted public safety initiatives.

The article reported Florida was the first state to take this legislative initiative, mandating that state agencies must replace foreign-made drones. Forbes reported this switch came at a financial cost and involved the use of drones that may not match the advanced software capabilities of their international counterparts.