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Drones in Utah: 'It's important that we get this right'

Published: Thursday, Feb. 25 2016 12:55 p.m. MST

Updated: Tuesday, June 21 2016 6:41 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2014 file photo, members of the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office fly their search and rescue drone during a demonstration, in Brigham City, Utah. Legislation regulating unmanned aerial vehicles descended on the state Capitol on Wednesday. One bill advanced, one hovered but didn't go anywhere and at least two more await takeoff.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation regulating unmanned aerial vehicles descended on the state Capitol on Thursday. One bill advanced, one hovered but didn't go anywhere and at least two more await takeoff.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, grounded his own bill after drone industry experts, a state economic development official and a government watchdog group pointed out its flaws.

"We don't need more laws to regulate drones," John McDonald, an airplane pilot and drone operator, told the Senate Transportation and Public Utilities and Technology Committee.

The Federal Aviation Administration and state law already cover what Harper is proposing, he said.

SB210 aimed to restrict recreational drone use during emergencies, wildfires and large gatherings, including allowing police to "neutralize" unmanned aerial vehicles in certain situations. It also would set criminal penalties for trespassing and voyeurism.

Harper acknowledged "confusion" in the bill before deciding not to move it forward.

"This legislation is deeply troubling to me," said Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, the committee chairman. He said the bill sends the wrong message to Utah's budding drone industry.

Back at the offices of Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems, there was a sense of relief as news came that Harper's bill wouldn't go forward. The company's staff — which has been growing steadily ever since doors opened a year and a half ago — were busy readying a number of drones, cameras and control panels for the Legislature's Aerospace Day on Friday.

"We started with just one technician. Now we're up to five," sales manager Ryan Wood said.

The company, partnered with Flir thermal imaging, sells and builds large, specialized drones. The heavy-duty crafts are finding increasing use in construction and inspection fields, search and rescue, law enforcement, and odd niche purposes Wood said he never imagined, such as tracking feral hogs.

"It's amazing what these things can do and how versatile they are," said Wood, who is a member of the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance. "The demand is huge. It's been a challenge to keep up with."

When most people think of drones, they think of smaller hobby crafts, not the commercial machines, Wood said.

Similar sentiments were expressed on the Hill by other members of the alliance.

David Terry, CEO of SilverHawk Aerial Imaging, told the committee Harper's bill would "dampen" his ability to stay in business. He said it would be difficult to understand airspace restrictions from city to city.

Terry also questioned the police's ability to shoot down a drone because they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a hobbyist and commercial operator registered with the FAA. He said it would set off a chain of complicated events, including a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

Utah Valley University professor Robert Trim said the school would have to abandon its civil aviation program if the legislation passed. He said it attempts to redefine what is already a patchwork of laws that are difficult to navigate and that FAA regulations are already more stringent.

Trim said he's working on a curriculum for unmanned aerial vehicles, an industry Utah is well positioned to get into. Starting pay for lead pilots is $96,000, he said.

Ben Hart, a managing director in the Governor's Office of Economic Development, told the committee he is concerned about the "optics" of the bill. He said the office is "sensitive" to legislation that would hurt an industry the state is trying to build up.

"It's important that we get this right," he said.

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, said he's more interested in privacy issues surrounding drones. Harper's bill, he said, focuses more technology rather than the activity.

The proposal would prohibit flying an unmanned aerial vehicle over private property or over an event having more than 500 people. Boyack noted Utah is a one-party recording state, meaning someone doesn't need consent to record a phone call or set up a camera.

The bill treats drones differently than other video or audio recording devices such as cellphones, he said, adding that shouldn't be the case just because a person could send something up in the air.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee approved HB126, which would prohibit drone flight within 3 miles of a wildfire. The bill has already passed the House.

"It might sound like a lot to those of us who are riding a bike or walking, but 3 miles goes very fast when you’re in an aircraft," said bill sponsor Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City. Violators could be charged with a class B misdemeanor.

Powell pointed to a 2015 wildfire when firefighting planes were grounded due to drone interference in the area. Not only did that endanger property but lives, he said.

The bill would allow a fire incident commander to allow insurance providers, utility companies, the news media and specific other entities drone access within the 3-mile radius.

Jason Groat, a member of the Salt Lake City Drone User Group, was quick to agree that there is a purpose for legislation protecting against drone use near wildfires or airports.

"I don't think it's right to be interfering with wildfires. Let the firemen do their job," Groat said. "It doesn't seem like it's going to interfere with me, because I'm always flying at some park or a field that's away from airports. … I don't want my drone to be anywhere near a fire."

Groat said he got into drone racing about two years ago. In that time, he has seen interest in all kinds of drone hobbies skyrocket.

"I'm into just seeing how fast my drone can go," Groat said. "I've seen this grow from just a little backyard hobby to now everyone wants to get into it with their kids."

The Salt Lake City Drone User Group will also participate in the Legislature's Aerospace Day.

Two other drone bills were not scheduled for hearing as of Thursday.

SB211, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would outline personal-, educational- and commercial-use guidelines for drones. It would prohibit drone operation while under the influence, establish law enforcement’s right to information gathered by drones, and set basic standards for drones like a 400 foot maximum flight height, 100 mph speed and 55 pound weight limit. The bill would also establish no-fly zones within 5 miles of an airport, over a corrections facility or the scene of an emergency situation.

HB420, sponsored by Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, would allow law enforcement to take down a drone interfering with an emergency situation.

Contributing: Emily Larson, McKenzie Romero

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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