RI lawmakers want to study, regulate drones

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The number of unmanned aerial vehicles flying too high and too close to airports and airplanes is soaring, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Now, Eyewitness News has learned several Rhode Island lawmakers are considering legislation to regulate the UAV’s – better known as drones – in order to keep both those up in the sky and on the ground safe.

The FAA says it receives more than two dozen reports every month from pilots who have spotted drones or model airplanes near their aircraft. Eyewitness News dug through the reports to the FAA, and found 193 close calls with drones in the last year alone. Six of those reports came from Massachusetts, three in New Hampshire, and two were in Connecticut.

So far, there have been no reports of close calls reported to the FAA here in Rhode Island. State Rep. Ray Gallison says this is exactly the sort of scene he wants to avoid in the skies over the Ocean State.

“I want to get out legislation in and passed so that we can at least restrict them now to protect the public,” he said.

Late last week, Rep. Gallison, along with four other co-sponsors, introduced the “Rhode Island Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles Act.” If passed, the legislation would give the state the authority to regulate all drones, both commercial and recreational. The legislation would also require all drones to be registered with the Department of Public Safety, limit the areas of operation near airports, military and government buildings and schools. The proposed legislation would also make it illegal for drones to take pictures or video of a private building – such as a house – without someone’s permission.

“You could look over someone’s property, someone could be in their backyard, going over a school with a drone,” said Gallison of his privacy concerns. “You could zero in on children and then, you know, who knows what people could do with that – and that’s a problem.”

Another group of local lawmakers have introduced similar drone legislation. Representatives Arthur Corvese and Stephen Ucci tell Eyewitness News they want to create an 11-member panel that would study how other states have regulated drones.

Special Report: Expert: Wayward drones pose danger to airplanes >>
Watch our recent report on close calls with drones »

The FAA already limits recreational drones. According to the federal agency, it is illegal for anyone to fly a drone within five miles of an airport or above 400 feet.

This past weekend, the agency proposed new guidelines for small commercial drones. The proposal states commercial drones cannot weight more than 55 pounds; commercial drones must fly within sight of their pilot; must stay below 500 feet, flying less than 100 miles per hour; commercial drone pilots would be required to be certified by the Transportation Security Administration.

The FAA says it will take 60 days of public comment before final rules are set on commercial drones.

Meantime, Rep. Gallison tells Eyewitness News he’s considering exceptions for law enforcement and first responders in his bill.

“If there’s someone in the search-and-rescue type of situation, certainly we could have an exception to that,” said Gallison. “But these are the things that I think we’ve started the discussion and I think that’s what’s important.”

Gallison says he will not be waiting for the FAA to issue final guidelines – he’s working to have his bill heard and passed this session.

The FAA says its working with federal, state and local law enforcement to track down recreational drone operators who are breaking the rules. We contacted the agency, who said that part of the reason there have been more drone sightings and close calls is because of increased awareness from pilots, as well as better record keeping.

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