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Drone operators protest bill to establish no-fly zones

By BRYNA GODAR
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A bill that would prohibit drones from flying over Wisconsin prisons and allow municipalities to establish no-fly zones is drawing flak from drone operators and technology advocates.

Under the bill, anyone who flies a drone over a state correctional institution would face a fine up to $5,000. The bill would also allow municipalities and counties to establish areas where drones cannot be flown. They could impose fines up to $2,500.

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said he and Sen. Richard Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, introduced the legislation at the request of correctional officers, following a series of cases across the country in which smugglers flew drugs, pornography or other contraband over prison walls.

Schraa called it “common-sense legislation” and said it will help correctional officers more safely and effectively do their jobs.

But others speaking at the public hearing in the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Wednesday said the rules would clash with federal regulations and could stifle economic growth from the relatively new technology.

“This bill would create a patchwork of local regulations,” said Consumer Technology Association lobbyist Joe Leibham.

He said that could limit opportunities for commercial drone operators and would conflict with federal authority to regulate airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been developing regulations for drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, now requiring them to register with the agency. Almost 300,000 drone owners registered in the first month since Dec. 21, when the requirement began.

Some local and state lawmakers, however, have criticized the FAA’s rules for being too lax and are stepping in with their own regulations. At the committee hearing Wednesday, legislators were unclear on what the FAA’s rules actually are regarding airports or other issues.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Madison, initially said she didn’t think the bill went far enough, raising concerns about the potential for drones to impact other large public places while waiting for more regulations from the FAA.

“While we’re waiting, we’re just kind of in limbo,” Taylor said.

Bridgeline Tek founder John Christenson and Menet Aero founder Peter Menet, both drone operators, said the FAA already has lots of rules regarding unmanned aircraft systems and this bill could hinder economic growth in this arena.

“We have such a strong aviation community here,” said Menet, whose company provides commercial drone operation. “Wisconsin could really benefit from this industry.”

Wisconsin Insurance Alliance representative Andy Franken also said they would like an exemption for insurance claims investigators, who are increasingly using drones for analyzing post-disaster instances instead of physically entering the site.

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