By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Last Christmas, thousands of youth and adults alike had the same request for Santa. Please leave a drone under the Christmas tree. In fact, a number of individuals, organizations and agencies also requested these flying robots. Small in size, but packing enormous capabilities, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems were previously, out of most folks reach.
Drones were typically associated with military use, as weapons. Guided by remote control, drones could be used to gather intelligence, as decoys, as a part of psychological warfare, or to help launch missiles.
However, did you know that hot-air balloons were basically the drones of the 1700’s and 1800’s? Hot-air balloons were the first unmanned aircraft and date back to 1783. It took about 60 years, but eventually the balloons were being used as bombs, then in 1858 to take the first aerial photo in Paris, France. While hard to believe, the first camera was attached to an unmanned rocket in 1896, by Alfred Nobel. Yes, he’s also the guy that the Nobel Peace Prize is named after. Anyone else see the irony here? Wait there’s more.
In 1898, a guy by the name of Nikola Tesla shows off a radio-controlled boat he invented. This is the precursor to radio-controlled aircraft and yes, the electric Tesla cars you see on the road today, some 124 years later, are named after Nikola.
Drones began to take the shape we recognize today, in 1935, in the United Kingdom. Over the years, the improvements and constant innovation has increased how we use and access drones. Today, uses for unmanned aircraft include everything from search and rescue missions, weather monitoring, to agriculture. They’ve gone from high-priced machinery to affordable devices that are now used for commercial and personal use. Of note, U.S. drone sales in 2020 exceeded $1.25 billion, according to Insider Intelligence. This advancement, while good, has also brought an array of legal challenges.
The law is often slow to catch up with technological advances and drones are no exception. While other countries are using drones to regularly deliver critical medicine and packages to remote areas, in the U.S. we are still trying to figure out who owns the air space over our real estate and public roadways. Do we need to create a system of drone highways and who should manage it all?
A key policy partner, George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, has published a state scorecard on drone preparedness. It looks at six key legislative and policy areas to include airspace lease law and landowner’s air rights. Wisconsin ranks 17th, in our overall score, and Oklahoma ranked number one. There are federal drone laws that apply to every state. In Wisconsin, we have three statewide laws covering drones, and a myriad of local drone laws created by counties, villages and cities. Before you take your new Christmas present out for a test run, you might want to understand the rules of the road. Okay, rules of the air!