Drones / Unmanned Aerial Systems

dji-mavic-proUnmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are rapidly becoming major users of national airspace. Commonly referred to as “drones,” unmanned aircraft come in a variety of shapes and sizes and seemingly have a near infinite number of uses.

Regardless of aircraft type, the responsibility to fly safely applies equally to all manned and unmanned aircraft operations. In order to promote safety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established regulations pertaining to the operation of UAS.

As the popularity of drones increases across Wisconsin, it is important that they are operated in a way that does not jeopardize public safety nor infringe on citizen rights.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established rules for recreational operations of unmanned aerial systems / drones that include the following, abbreviated, rules:

  • UAS must weigh less than 55 lbs (including payload and fuel).
  • UAS must be registered with the FAA if weight is over 0.55 lbs and must display proper FAA registration markings.
  • Operators must maintain a visual line of sight (unaided by any device other than corrective lenses) with the UAS while in flight.
  • Operator of an UAS must give way to all manned aircraft.
  • UAS must be operated in accordance with a community based set of safety guidelines. 
  • Operation of UAS within 5 miles of an airport requires notification of the airport operator and control tower.
  • UAS’s must comply with all flight restrictions (ie. select sporting events, theme parks) and temporary flight restrictions (ie. Presidential movements, emergency situations) issued by the FAA.
  • Recreational pilots must complete The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) and carry their certificate of completion with them while operating a UAS / Drone.
  • Operators of UAS’s are subject to FAA enforcement for careless and/or reckless operation.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) maintains final rulemaking authority, the state of Wisconsin has adopted several laws that govern the use of drones.  Below is an abbreviated overview of Wisconsin law pertaining to the use of drones:

  • It is unlawful for law enforcement (absent extenuating circumstances or via warrant) to utilize a drone for investigative purposes in a place or location where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy (WI §175.55).
  • Drones can be flown over lands and waters of this state, UNLESS at such a low altitude as to intentionally interfere with the existing use to which the land and water, or space over the land or water is dangerous or damaging to persons or property beneath. Additionally, It is unlawful to land a drone (expect in the case of a forced landing) on private property without the consent of the property owner (WI §114.04).
  • It is unlawful to operate a drone recklessly, while under the influence of an intoxicant or drug, or with a prohibited alcohol concentration above 0.04 (WI §114.09).
  • It is unlawful to operate any weaponized drone (WI §941.292).
  • It is unlawful to use a drone to photograph, record, or observe an individual at a place or location where that individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy (WI §942.10).

Residents who observe unsafe operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems / Drones may contact the police department to report the matter and an officer will respond to investigate.  Violations of the FAA rules may be reported to the regional operations center for follow-up and discipline.  Egregious violations that endanger public safety may also be referred to the district attorney for charges in violation of state law.

Public Safety Unmanned Aerial Systems / Drones

The use of Unmanned Aerial Systems by public safety agencies are also regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration; however, the governing rules vary for public safety operations and include additional state and Federal laws.  The use of an UAS by public safety organizations vary, but primarily include operations that support the primary objective of preserving life safety and the protection of property.  Some of the specialized uses of a UAS include support for investigations, criminal apprehension, locating missing/lost subjects, crime scene/fire documentation, photography of  accident scenes, and tactical support for special operations.