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Wisconsin lawmakers seek to regulate controversial drone technology

Wisconsin lawmakers seek to regulate controversial drone technology

From large, looming aircraft to dragonfly replicas that weigh less than 5 pounds, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, are controversial flying devices that soon may be regulated in Wisconsin.

While many people associate drones with the negative publicity recently generated because of their use in warfare, the devices are increasingly being sought out by law enforcement agencies and popping up in hobby stores alike as their technology catches on for civilian use.

Videos shot using drones, which can be bought for as little as $35, are popping up on YouTube and Facebook, a testament to how popular and readily available they are becoming.

“I think most people’s familiarity with drones is how they are used internationally,” says state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “I had that same perception until I started doing research.”

Now Taylor, along with Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, and Republican Reps. Tyler August of Lake Geneva and Dave Craig of the Town of Vernon, are proposing a bill that would set statewide rules on how drones can be used by everyone from law enforcement agencies to the average citizen. The bill would only apply to civilian drone use in Wisconsin, not to military use.

“This technology is expanding, it’s exploding and there is more and more of a risk a citizen will have their privacy rights violated,” Taylor says. “We care about privacy and want to get out ahead of the technology.”

The authors say the drone legislation, which began to be circulated for co-sponsors Thursday, would protect the privacy of state citizens by requiring a law enforcement agency to first obtain a search warrant before using a drone equipped with video or audio recording equipment to collect evidence for a criminal investigation.

The bill would allow drones to be used without first obtaining a search warrant only in emergency situations, defined as locating an escaped prisoner, aiding in a search and rescue mission, or preventing imminent harm to a person or the imminent destruction of evidence.

Such a drone, defined as an “aerial vehicle that doesn’t have a human operator,” would not be allowed to carry weapons.

The legislation would ban the use of drones in areas where there is an “expectation of privacy.” Recording people in public places, like the Dane County Farmers' Market or a public park, would be allowed, says Taylor.

“But your neighbors would not be able to fly a drone into your yard and record you,” she adds.

That sounds like good news for the average citizen, given that drones on the market, including the Draganflyer X-6, have the capability to see through the walls of buildings by using infrared heat sensors, according to its website.

The X-6 can also follow vehicles and zoom in to capture license plates, as well as images of vehicle occupants.

This use of a drone, however, would be banned in Wisconsin under the proposed legislation unless it was an emergency situation or a warrant had been obtained by law enforcement.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 81 law enforcement agencies and universities across the country have applied for permission to fly drones in U.S. airspace. The University of Wisconsin is among them. 

Students at Madison Area Technical College have begun to experiment with the new technology. A semester-long project included learning about and building drones and students will present their discoveries at a public event Thursday. 

The Madison Police Department and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office say they have no immediate plans to use drone technology.

“We don’t have any drones, and we don’t have a drone policy,” said Joel DeSpain, MPD’s spokesman. “It’s not something that we’ve contemplated at this point.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union — which supports the legislation being circulated in Wisconsin — drone privacy laws have been introduced in 39 states. Three states — Idaho, Florida and Virginia — have laws in place.

On the military front, U.S. intelligence reports obtained by McClatchy revealed President Barack Obama’s administration was not adhering to its own drone policies.

As first reported by McClatchy last month, the use of drones drastically increased under the Obama administration and, counter to its publicly stated policy, the administration has targeted individuals other than top-level al-Qaida officials for drone killings.

The news prompted the U.S. Senate in mid-April to hold its first-ever hearing on the legality and consequences of drone warfare and targeted killings.

Critics of the practice, as described by one Yemeni national, say too many civilian deaths have resulted from the targeted drone attacks and they are contributing to a “growing hatred of America.”

The article goes on to say “Obama authorized at least 46 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, while former President George W. Bush launched only one there.”

The military's record has some on edge about any civilian use of drones, including Bonnie Block of Madison. She objects to the Obama administration’s use of drones, saying it's a violation of international law.

Block is a member of the Wisconsin Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars. Members frequently stage protests against the training of pilots for drone warfare outside the Volk Field Air National Guard Base, also home to Camp Williams, near the village of Camp Douglas in Juneau County.

“I don’t believe in targeted killings,” Block says.

She says lawmakers, as those in Wisconsin are doing, say drones can be effective for search-and-rescue missions or in fighting forest fires. But she adds there is always “blowback” once the technology gets a foothold.

“We have militarized the police and the use of drones is just another part of that (trend),” Block says. “It is very worrisome to me that they need military-style weapons for local law enforcement agencies.”

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