New legislation would limit drone surveillance of homes and livestock

By: - February 28, 2023 3:17 pm

Those who spoke against aspects of the bill acknowledged there is a problem with people attempting to surveil livestock. (Photo by Scott Bauer/Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

An Iowa House bill that is meant to curtail the aerial surveillance of livestock facilities in the state might have damaging implications for businesses that use drones to conduct land surveys, advertise agricultural real estate and evaluate storm damage, among other purposes, according to some of those business owners.

“I totally understand and support why this bill is being pushed,” said Nate Brown, who works for a farmers cooperative and owns a video production business, “but I’m concerned about the unintentional consequences it could have on other areas of the ag industry.”

House File 388 was advanced by a House Agriculture subcommittee Tuesday. It would prohibit “remotely piloted aircraft” from flying within 400 feet of a homestead or areas where agricultural animals are kept, unless pilots get permission from their owners.

The legislation establishes criminal penalties: It would be a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $855, for those who intrude upon that airspace. It would be a serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,560, if the device that intrudes is capable of recording images, sound or other data. Repeat offenders would face enhanced penalties.

The bill has exemptions for public employees, public utilities, weather observers and those who pilot their drones more than 400 feet from the ground in the restricted areas.

A similar bill in the Iowa Senate was recommended by a subcommittee last week. At least one of the bills would need approval from a full committee to be available for consideration after this week.

“I’ve got constituents in my area that have very legitimate concerns — some as far as finding crashed drones in livestock pens,” said Rep. Derek Wulf, a Hudson Republican and farmer who led the subcommittee on Tuesday. “These are the types of issues that the intent of this bill is created to cover.”

Republican lawmakers have made several attempts in recent years to restrict animal rights groups from documenting unflattering conditions at livestock facilities. Last year, a judge struck down one of the state’s so-called “ag-gag laws” — the third such court ruling in five years.

Several people who operate businesses with drones said there will be circumstances in which they might run afoul of the new legislation and that it could be difficult to get permission from homeowners in advance. The bill’s definition of “homestead” does not restrict it to agricultural areas.

Chandler Steffy, who operates a business that uses drones to evaluate storm damage to buildings, said the legislation would be problematic for him in more densely populated areas.

“If you are in town, I could potentially be on top of upwards of seven to 10 different properties or different landowners,” he said.

Rep. Norlin Mommsen, a DeWitt Republican who was part of the subcommittee that recommended the bill, dismissed some of those concerns said he and his son have used drones for their farming operation and would not have violated any part of the new legislation while doing that work.

“I do have a problem with somebody thinking they have a right to fly over my place and take pictures,” Mommsen said.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.