Wisconsin passes new drone legislation

The landscape for Wisconsin drone pilots changed on April 16, 2018 without much publicity. In fact this new law was probably the most notable legal development since Wisconsin legislators passed the drone privacy law in 2014. This new legislation made some changes and additions to WI §114.04 and §114.045. I recommend you read these provisions in their entirety.  I’ve written this article to help clarify the changes and how they affect the operation of small unmanned aircraft or “drones”.

Highlights of Act 322:

  • Changed the definition of a drone. The previous definition required the unmanned aircraft to carry a camera or recording device to be classified as a drone. The new legislation changes the definition to, “an aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.”
  • Added the word “intentionally” when defining flights over land or property
  • Reaffirms that drone flights over private property are lawful unless certain elements are met
  • A political subdivision may not pass a law or ordinance that is contrary or inconsistent with this section

To understand the significance of this bill it’s important to understand the role of the local, state and federal government with respect to regulating drones.  Generally speaking, the federal government regulates the national airspace while state and local governments may regulate conduct and where drones take off and land. State and local government may also regulate how their own agencies may use drones. For more information you can read the “State and Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Fact Sheet“.

With the introduction of drones to the national airspace, municipal governments have been feeling the pressure to get a handle on this new technology, mainly driven by privacy concerns. Unfortunately, some communities may have overstepped their jurisdictional boundaries by passing draconian regulations and in some cases, all out bans. What has resulted is a patchwork of inconsistent regulations across jurisdictional lines.  This mishmash of local regulation has created an untenable situation for those who fly drones legally for personal or commercial use.  It seems that Wisconsin legislators understood this dilemma with the passage of Act 322.

Chapter 114 of Wisconsin statutes regulates some aspects of aviation. WI §114.04, drafted before drones were conceived was, in part, aimed at delineating the national airspace and private property rights of landowners. State law acknowledged that flights over land and waters in the state are lawful unless the flight is at such a low altitude as to “interfere with the existing use” or the flight is conducted as to be imminently dangerous or damaging to persons or property lawfully on the land or water beneath.” Act 322 added the word “intentionally”. This is significant because it recognizes that drones, like manned aircraft may legally operate in the national airspace, even over private property. These flights are in fact lawful unless the flight violates those provisions mentioned above. It is important to note however that other laws may apply, such as WI §942.10 which deals with the issue of privacy. §114.045 makes it illegal to fly over a correctional facility. This could include county jails, and other detention facilities.

Keep in mind that political subdivisions may still regulate conduct with drones and where drones take off and land. This could include parks and other public lands. A number of other state and local laws may still apply such as interfering with emergency responders, reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct and harassment.  

Drone pilots should understand that flying an unmanned aircraft is serious business. Whether you are flying a drone recreationally or commercially its important you understand the rules. A little courtesy also goes a long way. Most people are pretty reasonable once they understand what you are up to. So, if your mission takes you over or near private property, its a good idea to have a conversation with the property owner first. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should and remember, there are limitations.

If you would like to know more about drone laws, obtaining a license to do commercial work or need some flight training, I can help.  Just check out the training links on my page.

Stay safe, have fun and happy flying!

*I would like to acknowledge the UAS Advocacy Network (UASAN.org) in working with state legislators to help craft this sensible legislation.


About Bill Bongle

Bill Bongle is a 29-year police veteran and technology consultant, rising to the rank of Captain before retiring from the Green Bay Police Department in 2015. In 2015 Bill started Titletown Drones LLC, a company which provides drone related training and equipment. He specializes in assisting public safety agencies establish their drone programs. Bill has developed several drone related training courses including part 107 test prep and flight training. Bill has trained hundreds of commercial drone pilots, police officers, firefighters and government officials across the nation.