Bill would define drone misdemeanors

By RAY WILBUR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan drone operators are split on how a Senate bill aimed at regulating the use of their unmanned aerial vehicles could impact their work.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Pete MacGregor, R-Rockford, would clarify that commercial and recreational drone flight is subject to federal rules, enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration. It would also authorize the use of state misdemeanor penalties for things like privacy violations and establish a task force to recommend whether other state restrictions are needed.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.

While some drone operators see the bill as clarifying guidelines for hobbyists and other operators, others say it creates unneeded regulation, interrupting the work they do.

“Statewide laws would murky the water,” said Robert Goodwin, geospatial analyst at Michigan State University, who uses drones for research. “I don’t know how they would enforce their regulations on top of the FAA’s.”

But MacGregor’s bill states that, “This act does not affect federal preemption of state law.”

Instead, it gives power to local units and state departments to devise their own drone policies not covered by the FAA. That could include local bans for flying near landmarks. Mackinac Island, for instance, restricts drone use there.

Separately, Michigan’s Department of Transportation is creating guidelines for handling contractors who use drones and the safest ways to fly them, said Steve Cook, engineer of operations and maintenance at the department.

The guidelines are planned to come out in 2017, he said, and will allow the department to use drones in a variety of ways, including inspecting bridges and analyzing traffic issues.

The Michigan State Police and the Department of Natural Resources also use drones to better understand car crashes and environment hazards.

MacGregor’s bill would not affect those departments, Cook said. They have the ability to create their own policies for flying as long as they abide by the federal rules.

Those federal aviation rules set maximum heights drones can fly and distances from airports they can fly in.

It doesn’t make much sense to worry about new regulations, said Alex Bloye, director of aviation at Northwestern Michigan College’s aviation program.

“We can still fly just as we did before,” he said. “The only people who will be affected by this are those people who knowingly infringe on people’s privacy while flying.”

There are no set consequences for flying drones inappropriately in the state. MacGregor’s bill would allow for misdemeanor charges for a number of violations.

Using drones in a manner that violates existing restraining orders, infringes on someone’s reasonable expectation of privacy or the use by a sex offender to follow and capture images of someone are all listed as violations that would result in a misdemeanor charge.

“If you’re flying drones responsibly you should welcome these regulations,” Bloye said. “They will help eliminate the criminal operators.”

The bill has passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House.