By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida legislature passed a bill on Wednesday restricting the use of unmanned drones by law enforcement agencies in the state, out of concern over privacy rights.
The House of Representatives unanimously approved the bill, which passed the Florida Senate last week. Governor Rick Scott said he plans to sign it into law.
Once the legislation is enacted, Florida will join Idaho and Virginia as states that have approved laws to limit the use of drones. Similar legislation restricting their use has been introduced in more than a dozen other states this year.
Current federal regulations sharply limit the number and types of drones that can fly in American airspace to just a few dozen law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, and to universities for scientific research.
But more drones are expected to operate in the skies in the coming years if federal restrictions loosen, allowing increased use of lighter and lower-flying drones.
The Florida bill restricts the use of drones to emergencies like searches for missing children or a dangerous fugitive. It also allows them to be used in hostage situations and to assess damage from hurricanes or wildfires.
The legislation requires police to get search warrants before using drones to gather evidence or track suspects in a criminal case. Under the legislation, any evidence illegally gathered by drone surveillance would not be admissible in court.
Cash-strapped law enforcement agencies see small drones, which cost as little as $30,000, as money-saving, low-manpower tools that can aid in crime-fighting.
In February, worries over their use prompted the Virginia legislature to put a two-year moratorium on drones, with limited exceptions.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Steve Orlofsky)