Press on the proposed Montana drone ban

J.D. "Pepper" Petersen

Destroying Montana’s drone industry will cost jobs IR

Drones in agriculture will prove to be the greatest advancement in ag in decades, and the type of high tech drone work I have seen at Montana’s Universities will help to revolutionize farming. Drones are already increasing Montana’s farm profits, and are poised to dramatically decrease water usage and herbicide input saving billions of dollars a year while keeping our environment cleaner. And that’s just the beginning!

Montana’s high tech drone industry brings millions of dollars into the economy across Montana. In small towns and big cities, from Alzada to the Yaak, drone manufacturers, operators, and associated industries employ dozens of people in Montana today. As a drone entrepreneur, I’m concerned about recently introduced legislation to severely limit drone usage in Montana.

State Senator Hinebauch’s bill is essentially a drone ban. As written, SB 170 makes it impossible to meaningfully operate a drone in Montana. Banning or severely limiting unmanned aircraft usage in Montana will hurt our economy and cost jobs. SB 170 was reportedly written to curtail rogue drone operators. As written, it isn’t legal (as it steps on federal authority over airspace) and it won’t likely stop any criminals either.

Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly dislike rogue drone operators, probably more than most. Anyone serious about unmanned flight tech looks at rogue drone operators with some level of disdain. Stopping these problem children has proved difficult, even with existing laws. These rogue drone pilots willfully flaunt their lawbreaking then post their antics on social media. Adding an ill-conceived and unenforceable Montana statute won’t stop these lawbreakers, just the law-abiding operators and hobbyists.

Per recent political ads, Montana politicians seem likely to seek a lead based solution in the form of a 12 gauge or similar remedy in response to drone problems. We are all rightly anxious about how drone technology could affect our lives, our privacy and our safety. No American wants to be harassed or surveilled by the government or anyone else. However, severely limiting drones is a knee-jerk reaction.

I’m certain that drone anxiety played into the development of SB 170, which points to good intentions with bad implementation. The proposed rule would apply heavy fines to our brightest young people who dared fly a drone in Montana airspace. Drones provide so much opportunity for STEM education our kids need in our increasingly high tech world. While drone operators unquestionably require defined boundaries, banning drone flights isn’t the answer or a good idea.

Our neighboring states of North Dakota and Idaho, whose combined airspace is second only to Montana’s, have become tech hubs for drones. The states’ University systems and private industry are seeing great benefit from drone development in the form of cash and economic diversification and growth. That means high tech jobs for local kids when they graduate college and more money into the local economy through cutting edge industry. Laws like SB 170 can kill these opportunities.

Rather than banning or severely limiting drone flights for Realtors, hobbyists, and school kids working on science projects; our Legislature can find more reasonable and enforceable privacy rules that would protect our citizens while still welcoming millions and billions of dollars in investment to our state.North Dakota and Idaho, who are both traditionally more politically conservative than Montana, have already blazed a trail for drones legislatively that protects privacy while promoting a growing industry. Last I checked Idaho had not become a drone surveillance state. Let’s use laws like Idaho’s 21-213 governing UAV’s as a starting point. It protects privacy and ensures a healthy drone industry.

Instead of bowing to drone hysteria born of ignorance, let’s work towards realistic enforceable solutions that will keep Montana on the cutting edge of a high-flying, high-tech industry. If other states have addressed drone related privacy issues without banning drones, surely Montana can too.

Pepper Petersen is CEO of Big Sky UAV in Helena. He frequently speaks on drone technology and was named among the Top 20 under 40 entrepreneurs in Helena in 2016 for his work with drones.

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