Wisconsin Geospatial News

Wisconsin legislators unveil bill to restrict use of aerial drones

Details of the bill

Last week a bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a bill that would limit the use of aerial drones in the state. Drones – or more accurately Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) – are powered aircraft that can fly autonomously or can be piloted remotely. The bill would restrict law enforcement agencies from using UAS to collect information without a warrant, and would bar the private use of UAS for reconnaissance purposes, including the collection of photographs and videos.

The full text of the bill can be found here. Under the bill, no law enforcement agency could use a UAS equipped with video or audio recording equipment to collect evidence in a criminal investigation without first obtaining a search warrant. Certain exceptions would be made for emergencies and other special circumstances. The bill would also prohibit individuals from using a UAS to “photograph, record, or otherwise observe another individual in a place where the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The authors of the bill cite privacy and civil liberties issues as the rationale behind their efforts. They argue that the bill reinforces the notion that no one is allowed to violate privacy regardless of technological innovations. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Wisconsin is an early supporter of the bill

UAS laws in other states

The ACLU has been monitoring UAS legislation initiatives across the country and maintains up-to-date information on their status. According to the ACLU report, as of May 10, 2013, UAS legislation has been introduced in 41 states.

Virginia enacted the first such law in April of this year; the law calls for a two-year moratorium on the use of UAS. The law primarily applies to law enforcement and regulatory agencies, prohibiting the use of UAS except in emergencies and in search and rescue operations. Other exceptions include utilization of UAS by the Virginia National Guard for damage assessment following disasters. The law specifically exempts universities and other research organizations and institutions, which are free to use UAS for research and development purposes (subject to federal oversight regulations).

Idaho has also enacted a UAS law, which is set to go into effect on July 1st of this year. The law prohibits law enforcement agencies, with some exceptions, from using UAS to collect information without a warrant. The law restricts the private use of UAS for reconnaissance, but an exception is made for “mapping or resource management.”

Two other states that have recently enacted UAS laws are Florida and Montana. Florida’s law, which goes into effect on July 1st of this year, prohibits the use of UAS by law enforcement without a search warrant, except to counter the risk of a terrorist attack and in situations of imminent danger. The bill is silent on private use of UAS. Montana’s law, which goes into effect on October 1st of this year, similarly focuses on law enforcement restrictions rather than private use.

UAS regulations and policy

Currently the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates UAS use at the federal level. According to the FAA, public entities that want to fly a UAS in civil airspace must first obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA). Common COA requests include applications in law enforcement, fire fighting, border patrol, disaster assessment, search and rescue, and training. According to the FAA there were 327 COAs active as of February 15, 2013.

In the public’s mind, UAVs are often linked to the armed military drones that have received so much attention in the media recently. This accounts in part for the general aversion by industry insiders to the term “drone.” Although they share some of the same technology as military drones, civilian UAS are generally employed for beneficial purposes.

John Villasenor, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of electrical engineering and public policy at UCLA, in a recent Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article, notes that civilian UAS applications include search and rescue, emergency response, traffic assessment, surveying and mapping, resource monitoring, air quality analysis, weather prediction, and precision agriculture. He notes that analysts predict significant economic benefits from use of the technology and the refinement of the technology itself. Villasenor argues that when drafting new UAS legislation it is critical to adopt a balanced approach that recognizes, not just the increasingly well recognized privacy concerns of the technology, but also the much less widely appreciated benefits.

UAS in Wisconsin

Information on UAS use in Wisconsin is hard to come by, simply because the technology is new and has not yet been widely adopted. But there is clear interest in using UAS for reconnaissance and mapping. Much of this interest is centered at campuses of the UW system, although there are some signs of interest in the private sector and governmental agencies as well.

Christina Hupy, a professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at UW-Eau Claire, is interested in the technology for such applications as precision agriculture (e.g., to map real-time crop health for more precise targeting of water and pesticide use). She, along with her husband Joe Hupy, also a professor at Eau Claire, recently partnered with a small startup company offering a variety of UAS services. The pair have also obtained a COA from the FAA to use a UAS for research purposes. In Christina’s view, some of the applications of UAS may have significant economic development potential, and she worries that legislation that limits the use of UAS may dampen the effects of these new applications.

Joe Hupy has also been experimenting with tethered and high-altitude reconnaissance balloons. He and his students recently launched a balloon with an attached camera that ultimately reached an altitude of 100,000 ft. (over 3 times the height of Mt. Everest). You can watch a video of the balloon’s voyage here. The majority of Joe’s work is with tethered balloons operating from 500 ft. Students in his Geospatial Field Methods course produced a new high-resolution map of UW Eau Claire campus using data gathered with the tethered balloon. While a balloon is not a UAS, there are some parallels between the two technologies in terms of the ability to generate on-demand, custom imagery.

Outside of Wisconsin, many other universities are actively working on UAS efforts. For example, Oregon State’s new industry-academia-government UAS consortium is an effort to develop new application areas for UAS to make Oregon “a focal point of an evolving, multi-billion dollar industry, while enhancing academic research and student education.” Nicholls State University is using UAS to perform barrier island mapping, inspect offshore oil rigs and monitor bird habitats. UAS is also being used for archaeological site mapping by Vanderbilt University. This isn’t a comprehensive list, rather an indication that there is growing interest in UAS technology for a variety of purposes.

What’s next?

It’s hard to tell what impacts Wisconsin’s proposed legislation will have on budding applications of UAS within the UW system and elsewhere in the state. It is noteworthy that other states that have already enacted legislation allow for some private use of UAS, whether explicitly through exemptions or implicitly by remaining silent on the issue of UAS outside of law enforcement.

At this time we don’t have a listing of university departments, state agencies, companies, and other entities in Wisconsin that are interested in UAS technology. In an effort to document what’s going on in this area, we’re interested in hearing from you. Are you using UAS currently, or do you plan to in the future? What kinds of applications are you looking at, and what sorts of vehicles are you considering? Please feel free to email me directly if you have any information you’d like to share.