Michigan Lawmakers Screw-up a Good Idea

Sometimes a good idea gets carried just a little bit too far.

Led by Rep. Tom McMillan (R-45) (R-ALEC), a dozen Michigan House Republicans, joined by four Democrats, introduced a bill today to regulate and restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. The intent of HB 4455 is a worthy one, which enjoys uncommon across-the-aisle support, but the language of the proposed law indicates a poorly thought-out, possibly even paranoid approach to the UAV question.

While it was (hopefully) not the lawmakers intent to do so, the bill, as currently worded, appears to put onerous restrictions on non-law enforcement applications, or perhaps prohibit them altogether. There is no carve-out for state government units to employ UAVs for important cost-saving uses that do not involve surveillance.

Section 1(a) defines that the law applies to “this state or local unit of government, including, but not limited to, a law enforcement agency or any other investigative entitiy, agency, department, division, bureau, board, or commission, or an individual acting or purporting to act on behalf of this state or local unit government.  The section  goes on to specifically list Michigan counties, cities, townships, villages, public schools, along with law enforcement, including the Department of Natural Resources as being subject to the provisions of the law.

Section 3(3) explains that  “…a law enforcement agency of this state or a political subdivision of this state shall not disclose or receive information acquired through the operation of an unmanned aerial vehicle.”

The remainder of the twelve page document details the allowable uses and circumstances for government units employing UAVs, reporting requirements, and criminal penalties for non-compliance. Much emphasis is placed on prohibiting the collection of information other than that of a specific target, meaning suspect under investigation. It makes the assumption, by default, that the only reason for UAVs is surveillance. The law simply does not include a section that acknowledges possible other uses, thus reflecting either a lack of imagination on the part of lawmakers, or possibly they didn’t even read the bill.

Other uses include, but… (to borrow a phrase) are not limited to:

Aerial photography for 911 purposes. Counties currently use expensive manned aerial photography to create accurate maps. Digitized maps are then overlaid on the photographs creating the complete visual aid used by 911 services and responders. UAVs would be much less expensive and more accurate. Manned aircraft capture images at a slight angle, making the digital overlay inaccurate, but a properly equipped UAV could position the camera straight down.

Forest fire detection. The current detection system is little more sophisticated than it has been for over a century. Sure, we have satellite capabilities, but that is only useful for evaluating large fires after they have spread. UAVs would be able to economically locate flare-ups in remote forest areas, giving firefighters a jump on containing the blaze.

Monitoring Invasive Species. The Great Lakes and Michigan’s inland bodies of water are under attack from unchecked phragmite growth. The DNR has been coordinating patchwork-style with local units of government to monitor and contain the problem. UAVs would be an excellent and cost-effective means of keeping tabs on the state’s progress and identifying problem areas.

Tracking Deer Herds. Gaining an understanding of deer population movements, especially during outbreaks of Bovine Tuberculosis, could help check disease in general.

HB 4455 needs a rewrite. It must specifically exempt non-surveillance uses of UAVs by units of government. The bill, as written, reflects and promotes a costly paranoia of technology.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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