Oklahoma state lawmakers are considering whether they should crack down on people flying drones over private agricultural property.
State Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, has proposed a new law that would prohibit anyone from flying unmanned aircraft over the property unless they work for state or federal government, law enforcement, utility, oil and gas companies or are part of a commercial operation authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration. A private landowner could also give an operator written consent.
Violators could face up to a year in jail.
“For me right now, this is a private property rights issues and a privacy issue,” Murdock said. “What I’m doing is just giving the local law enforcement the ability to basically write a speeding ticket for someone that’s not flying a drone within the FAA regulations.”
Murdock said his measure is designed to govern drones flying at 400 feet or lower, but it would offer no protections to Oklahomans living within municipalities.
“The people that live in rural Oklahoma, they’re not different than someone living in the city,” he said. “You don’t want me walking across your backyard. It’s just when you get into rural Oklahoma, our backyards are a little bigger, but it’s still our backyard.”
Rodd Moesel, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, said his organization is watching the measure closely to determine any unintended consequences.
The bureau’s members currently believe any unknown drone flying below 250 feet is trespassing on private property, he said.
Members are concerned about strangers using drones as “peeping Toms,” or to case property to steal animals and trailers, Moesel said.
“When you live out in the country where a lot of these farms are, police could be many miles away,” he said.
But he said members are also trying to maximize the potential benefits of the fast-developing technology, which can be used to help monitor irrigation systems, check on crops and gates or hunt for lost animals.
One potential issue is that property often isn’t contiguous. Members are concerned about how they can legally maneuver a drone from one acreage to the next without inadvertently trespassing and running afoul of the potential law, he said.
“(We) probably think they don’t have totally the right recipe of wording there yet,” he said.
If the legislation becomes law, Murdock believes it would mark the first time the state Legislature has passed laws aimed at regulating drone operators.
“Generally, these types of bills tend to be shortsighted since there isn’t any real threat to either personal property or privacy, but a perceived one by those not familiar with the technology,” said Jamey D. Jacob, president of the Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma, in an email.
He said he hasn’t reviewed the measure yet, but airspace regulation is under the purview of the FAA.
“If put in place, depending on how the bill would be framed, it would probably be unenforceable, but may also impede other aspects of current unmanned aircraft development and research in Oklahoma such as severe storm observations both (Oklahoma State University) and (the University of Oklahoma) are working on as well as use in first responder applications,” Jacob said.
Murdock said his measure does not specifically give the universities protection, but he’s confident no landowner would deny access for weather-monitoring purposes.
John Woods, executive director of government affairs for the University of Oklahoma, said the measure seems to have some protections built-in for universities, but it’s important to have the language right.
“I know his intention is certainly to protect weather-related research and any other research that is utilizing (unmanned aircraft),” Woods said. “Knowing everything we can about weather has implications for a multitude of industries, including agriculture.”
More than 550 Oklahomans work for the state’s multimillion dollar unmanned aircraft industry, according to the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, which promotes the aerospace industry.
(Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)