LANSING – A bill package to restrict where recreational drone users can fly their gadgets was heard by the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday, but many worry the federal government’s delayed action on drone regulation might end up rendering state legislation all for naught.
The package consists of SB 917, which would clarify who drone operators are prohibited from interfering with; SB 918, to create a state office to advise officials and the public on drones and drone regulation; SB 919, to specify that a drone would be considered an extension of the person operating it; and SB 920, SB 921 and SB 922, to criminalize the “knowing and intentional” operation of recreational drones in interference with “key facilities.”
The Penal Code explicitly defines key facilities to include, among many others, chemical manufacturing facilities, electric utilities and hazardous waste facilities.
The proposed S-1 substitute for SB 920 would place a half-mile rule on drone operation near key facilities. Sen. Peter MacGregor(R-Rockford), a co-sponsor of the entire package, said he understood the substitute’s entry into the issue of airspace might be controversial and testified that he would be in support of the bill with or without it.
The substitute provides “clear, strong language” to prevent recreational use in high-security areas, said John Dulmes of the Michigan Chemistry Council in his testimony, although he was open to discussion about the distance. He said there was no reason to allow drones in areas otherwise inaccessible by foot or vehicle.
Bryan Budds of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force testified against the substitute, saying any airspace restrictions would be clearly preempted by existing federal statutes.
The task force recommended restricting drones based on their interference with facility operations instead of specific airspace requirements, Budds said, adding that the numerous key facilities in the state would create a “patchwork” of restricted zones that recreational users could have a tough time understanding, let alone navigating.
Although committee chair Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) is behind the package in concept – he’s the sponsor of SB 918 – he nevertheless had concerns about taking state action on regulating drones when federal guidelines are still in the works.
MacGregor, Dulmes and Michigan Railroads Association president Jon Cool acknowledged those concerns but said the time had come for Michigan to follow nearly a dozen other states in filling in the gaps in federal drone regulation.
Cool said the Legislature needed to ensure protections for key facilities while Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration lagged behind.
He noted other drone legislation floating around the Capitol, like SB 715 to regulate them on Mackinac Island and HB 5495 to strengthen restrictions on law enforcement interference, as examples of ways the state Legislature was already working ahead of its counterpart in D.C.
Jennifer Thibodeau of drone manufacturer DJI, who said the company was only opposing SB 920’s S-1 substitute, acknowledged that waiting for the FAA to finalize its regulations had become a “frustratingly long” process.
Yet she said that regulating drone operation near key facilities was better left to the feds, not because the state Legislature was ill-equipped to handle the matter, but because a federal standard – whenever it appeared – would likely prevent the state from having to readdress the issue with every new technological development.
Thibodeau said an amendment had been proposed to the FAA’s reauthorization bill, currently in the U.S. Senate, to force the agency to establish critical infrastructure protections against drones by March 2019.
Consumers Energy, the Michigan Trucking Association, Amtrak and ITC indicated support for various bills, although no organization explicitly stated their approval of all five.
This story was published by Gongwer News Service.