By Mark Heinz, Outdoors Reporter
A bill that would classify unauthorized drone flights over private property as trespassing is too broad and could hurt legitimate businesses that use unmanned aircraft, some said in lobbying Wyoming lawmakers against approving Senate File 34.
Offering potential customers drone footage of rural properties for sale has become an industry standard, Scott Richard of Cody, president of industry association “Wyoming Realtors,” told the Wyoming Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
“What happens if my (drone) pilot inadvertently goes over the corner of neighbor’s property?” he asked.
The committee was hearing testimony on SF 34, which would make it possible to charge drone operators with criminal trespass if they substantially disrupted the use and “enjoyment” of property owners’ land or homes.
The committee voted to forward the bill to the Wyoming Senate.
An amendment making exceptions for commercial or public service drone flights over private property was tabled pending more research by the Legislative Service Office. The amendment could possibly be added for the bill’s second reading before the Senate, said committee chairman Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper.
Landen said the bill was prompted in part by numerous “anecdotal emails” to legislators in which people complained about rude, or even creepy, behavior with drones.
“Things like sneaking (a drone) up underneath a porch roof and checking people out,” he said.
Question Of Air Space
“Controlled” or regulated air space generally extends up to 500 feet, according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, flight instructor and Sublette County resident Bill Winney told the committee.
However, altitudes at which an unauthorized aircraft could be considered intrusive vary.
“Around an airport, that can go all the way down to the ground,” he said.
Around buildings, manned aircraft are usually required to get no lower than 500 feet, Winney said.
And above “assemblages of people,” an altitude of at least 1,500 feet is usually required.
However, the rules regulating drones remain vague, Landen said, adding that “this is a brand-new area of the law.”
Wyoming’s current trespass laws don’t account for the potential for airborne violations, requiring ground contact on private property without permission, said Sabrina King, lobbyist for the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
‘Curious About What We Are Doing’
Jordan Evans of the Cheyenne and Laramie County GIS Cooperative said his group usually flies drones at about 350-400 feet above Cheyenne and surrounding subdivisions.
GIS, or geospatial science, involves the measurement and analysis of geographic information.
Evans said his group has been flying drones in and around Cheyenne for about five years, but they haven’t had any complaints.
“Mostly it’s just been people walking up to us because they’re curious about what we were doing,” he said.
Public Safety, Commercial Uses
Drones also are sometimes used by first responders to scout fire or accident sites, Evans said, so a bill regarding drone trespass should include exceptions for that.
During Wednesday’s testimony, and previous testimony before the committee last week, insurance adjusters said drones are frequently used to investigate claimed structure damages or the extent of disaster areas.
Drones also are frequently used to inspect power lines or other electrical infrastructure, Wyoming Rural Electric Association Executive Director Shawn Taylor told the committee.
Electric co-ops usually inform landowners in advance when they’ll be flying drones over their property, he said. However, during an emergency such as a power outage, that might not be possible.
Commercial drone users are usually certified operators and well-behaved, Richard said.
Those causing trouble, Richard said, are “the hobbyists who buy cheap drones at Wal-Mart and fly them over their neighbors’ properties.”
‘Trespass Is Trespass’
Even so, businesses still need permission to come onto private property, so the bill should reflect that, said committee member Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep.
“I know there are some (businesses) I wouldn’t want on my place,” he said. “Trespass is Trespass.”