HELENA - People who spoke in opposition to a bill that would limit where drones can fly said they were worried the legislation, if not amendment, would prohibit the production of films and the use of aircraft by companies like railroads who use the technology to inspect their track.
AT&T uses drones to inspect its wireless towers, company lobbyist Mark Baker told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill Tuesday.
“It’s a much safer approach than sending personnel up on the tower for initial review," he said.
Senate Bill 170 is being carried by Rep. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux. As written, it creates a civil penalty for anyone who flies a drone over private property below 500 feet. Most drones cannot fly above that altitude, either because of how they are built or Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
In Eastern Montana, Hinebauch said he’s seen drones used to harass property owners.
“It’s people coming down and snooping on industry to a certain extent,” he said. “There were pipeline people that had some anti-pipeline people flying down with drones … trying to be an obstacle as far as building pipeline.”
Proposed amendments would allow drones to fly for commercial purposes and land surveying and exempt law enforcement and insurance companies. They would also increase the fine, which is set at a minimum of $500, to $2,500 for those who fly over a critical infrastructure facility.
“If you don’t have a right to be on the surface, you shouldn’t be on the air above that property,” said Chuck Denowh, representing United Property Owners of Montana, who spoke in support of the bill.
Most who opposed the bill said the may support if the amendments are adopted.
Steve White, of Bozeman, has flown drones for over 20 years. He said the FAA already has good rules on the commercial use of drones and that requiring people who use drones recreationally to register their vehicles would do more to protect rights than what the bill proposes.
“If somebody is a peeping tom and somebody is using a drone for that, the first thing he needs to do is have it registered."
Others expressed concerns about if a drone was blown onto private property or other accidental trespass.
Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, asked Hinebauch if he’d be open to an amendment that permitted drones flown by news organizations or film crews. Hinebauch said he couldn’t say without seeing a draft but emphasized his goal to protect property rights.
“A news organization does not have the right to just enter your backyard or your home to film a news segment. They have to ask permission. They should have to ask permission to fly a drone above your property as well.”
The committee took no action Tuesday.