Rep. Barrett’s legislation part of needed state drone regulations

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Legislator: We must balance hobbyist, recreational element with state interests

The House Committee on Communications and Technology today advanced a bill proposed by state Rep. Tom Barrett as part of a larger legislative package establishing needed state laws for drones.

A 2016 Federal Aviation Administration report estimated 2.5 million unmanned aircraft systems were being operated nationwide for a variety of purposes, including hobbyist and commercial. That number could grow to a projected 7 million by 2020.

A 27-member Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, began work in April 2017 to develop statewide recommendations on the operation, use and regulation of unmanned aircraft in Michigan. The bills discussed largely reflect the task force’s policy recommendations.

“I am not someone who is against drone technology expanding, but I think to the greatest extent possible we should have common-sense public safety in mind,” said Barrett, of Charlotte.

Barrett hopes that establishing laws for proper use will help shore up a lack of current protocols.

“With these laws on the books and some sort of centralized location where this information is available to users, we can start to implement these common-sense reforms,” Barrett said.

Barrett’s bill, House Bill 5497, makes it a crime to interfere with a public safety official performing their official duties. First responders attempting to reach people in life-threatening, emergency situations have been impeded by drones in the vicinity – most notably during airlift evacuations when helicopters need to land close to an accident in order to provide assistance.

Companion legislation in the package declares drone use as an “extension of the person”. Illegal activity carried out with the use of a drone would be treated the same as an individual breaking the law without unmanned aircraft as an aid. This language would apply to Barrett’s proposal in regards to interference.

“The laws we currently have address someone interfering with a law enforcement official by getting between them and the job they have to do,” Barrett said.

In offering testimony before the committee on Feb. 13, Barrett also touched on the issue of drone use around correctional facilities. Individuals use unmanned aircraft to drop contraband, cell phones, weapons and other items onto correctional facility property for inmates.

“Systems operating in this fashion put our correctional officers at risk,” Barrett said. “When a weapon is smuggled in to use against an officer or another prisoner, it goes against the state’s interest because we are in charge, at the state level, of that prisoner’s welfare. I am pleased these bills have come up as a result of the task force’s work on the issues surrounding this growing industry in Michigan.”

House Bills 5494-98 advance to the House floor for further consideration.

PHOTO INFORMATION: State Rep. Tom Barrett (left), of Charlotte, provides testimony for House Bill 5497 before the House Committee on Communications and Technology on Feb. 13. Barrett’s proposal is part of a bill package aiming to regulate unmanned aircraft at the state level. State Reps. Michele Hoitenga, of Manton, and Roger Hauck (right) of Union Township have also drafted legislation within the plan.