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Iowa lawmakers consider banning drones over prisons

DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers looking to stay one step ahead in the game of drones are drafting legislation to prohibit operation of unmanned aerial vehicles over jails and prisons.

Lawmakers are being spurred to action by reports that drones have been used to drop drugs, cellphones and other contraband inside prison grounds, said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota.

Prison officials are concerned drones could be used to smuggle weapons into a prison.

And while the Iowa Department of Corrections has reported no incidents, a spokesman said drones have been observed near or over prisons.

Klein acknowledges the ban on drones over prisons would be hard to enforce but said his aim is to give prosecutors a tool to use if the drone operator is identified and apprehended.

“We’re not talking about having the prison guards in the towers being able to shoot these things down” because that would violate Federal Aviation Administration regulations, Klein said.

Lobbyists representing insurance companies, news and movie companies, Google, airports and pilots all raised questions about the workability.

They suggested they could support the bill if it was amended to create exemptions for their use of unmanned aerial vehicles. A Department of Public Safety spokeswoman suggested there should be a carve-out for law enforcement.

Iowa is not alone in considering drone-related legislation. Last year, 38 state legislatures had such proposals, with 17 passing 23 pieces of legislation.

In some states, prison systems are looking into installing drone detection systems, and some officials predict in the near future that will be a standard part of prison security.

The Department of Correction has looked into drone detection technology and will stay in touch with other state prison systems as it researches and tests such systems, spokesman Cort Overton said.

Klein has been the House’s point person on drones since 2014 when legislation to prohibit using drones to film or record over someone else’s private property. In that debate, one lawmaker called drones a “non-issue.”

By the end of that session, Klein said, “every day legislators were dropping news articles on my desk” relating to unmanned aerial vehicles. “It didn’t take long before people said this is a serious thing.”

Since then, drone sales have expanded as farmers, real estate agents, photographers and others have begun using them for commercial and personal use.

Klein, for example, owns a drone he uses for crop scouting at his southeast Iowa farm.

Klein also said the Legislature may look at limiting or prohibiting flying drones above critical infrastructure such as municipal water supplies.

“That’s one of the things we’ve talked about is where are the places we need to make sure are fully secured,” he said. “Jails, prisons are easy ones, but how far do we go because we have more infrastructure that we need to be safeguarding.”

Another concern is drunken droning.

The New Jersey Legislature recently prohibited operation of a drone by anyone with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent — the same as the limit for operating a motor vehicle. Violators face up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. The measure also bars flying a drone near a prison or in pursuit of wildlife.

Alex Murphy at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said the agency’s legal experts believe current law prohibiting hunting, tracking, following or harassing wildlife from an aircraft includes UAVs.

Federal rules already put limits on speeds, altitudes and distances from airports where drones can be flown.

Also, drone operators, even if they are not using them for commercial purposes, must register with the FAA and have basic licensure acknowledging the operator knows how high they can be flown, for example, Klein said.

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