CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - Prisons in Missouri have a new challenge in their fight against contraband and it’s flying right over their walls.
Now lawmakers are stepping up with a solution that would create new ‘no-fly zones’ for drone pilots.
Karen Pojmann is the Communications Director for the Missouri Department of Corrections.
She says drones and other unmanned aircraft are a safety and security threat to their facilities.
“Since September 2016 we’ve had 11 reports of drone incidents at our facilities and we have 21 facilities throughout the state,” Pojman said. “Two of those instances occurred in Fall of 2018 at the Southeast Correctional Center.”
Jim Peterson is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems professor at Southeast Missouri State University.
He agrees with a proposed bill that would make state prisons a special air space.
“Federal prisons have already taken care of this so it’s really important the state of Missouri also take care of this as well,” Peterson said. “We know there are going to be bad actors and we have to be aware of it and yeah it’s appropriate to have those laws in order to prevent it."
The legislation is House Bill 324 which got initial approval from Missouri lawmakers on Monday Feb. 18.
In its current form, it would make it illegal for drone pilots to fly an unmanned aircraft near any correctional center, private jail, county jail, municipal jail or mental health hospital.
Pojmann says their main concerns are that drones can be used to airdrop illegal drugs or weapons on prison property or to assist with an escape plan.
Peterson says the technology is more than capable of carrying that out.
“I mean we have a drone here that can easily carry up to 30 pounds. No telling what someone could think of to deliver with that,” he said. “We have 4k camera. If you take enough images, you could model a prison without every going there. The sky’s the limit, all pun intended, for what they want to do illegally.”
HB 324 states that the no fly zones start at the property line of the facility and extends 300 feet above ground level.
If the law passes and you’re caught flying a drone in that air space, it will result in a Class A misdemeanor charge and possibly other felony charges depending on the pilots illegal intentions.
“I think it needs to be a pretty serious deterrent because I think people are going to do this and there needs to be some pretty significant consequences,” Peterson said. “I mentioned good drone laws and bad drone laws. Some states were trying to ban drones completely and that is not where we want to be. We want responsible drone operation.”
There are several exceptions outlined in the proposed law.
Under the current version drone flying is allowed over state prisons if the pilot is there exercising official duties as a government official, an employee of a law enforcement agency, fire department, EMS, or is representing a public utility or railroad company.
The bill also requires each facility to post a visible warning sign about the new law.
HB324 still needs final approval in the Missouri before it can move on to the Senate for further deliberation.
The full bill text can be found here.