Located in the Midwestern United States lies the 18th most populated state in the nation, Missouri. Home to more than 6 million people, the state has 104 adult detention centers and jails, and 21 correctional facilities operated by the Missouri Department of Corrections. Between all of these facilities, Missouri on average incarcerates 859 per 100,000 people a year. Even though both St. Louis and Kansas City, MO have been ranked as two of the most dangerous cities in the country, the overall state of Missouri has been ranked the 2nd safest state in the US. One of the ways that Missouri law makers are trying to ensure the state remains a safe place is by making sure that its prisons also remain safe environments. In today’s world of modern technology, this means having to pass laws prohibiting the use of drones in certain areas.
Missouri’s current drone laws follow what has been set forth by the FAA for much of the US. Commercial drone operators need to obtain a Part 107 license. Government drone operators also need a Part 107 or a Federal Certificate of Authorization. To be able to fly a drone recreationally there is no need to obtain a license, but if your drone weighs over 0.55 lbs you need to have it registered with the FAA. All drone operators are required to follow FAA regulations, which include keeping your drone within line of sight, away from people and moving vehicles, and out of restricted air space, just to name a few. However, it has become a nationwide problem that recreational drones are being flown into prison airspace to transport contraband to inmates.
For the last year now, the Missouri House of Representatives has been trying to pass a bill that would make it illegal to fly a drone not only over prisons, but mental health and open air facilities like sports arenas too. The House Bill 1898 is being sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, who is fearful of drones that have been spotted near such facilities could lead to dangerous environments. “The idea of course,” Henderson said, “is that they could drop in razor blades, drugs, cell phones, even possibly a gun.” Correctional employees have yet to find evidence of contraband being delivered by a drone, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened without their knowledge. There have been at least 11 drone sightings around Missouri correctional facilities. “So far, no contraband discoveries have been directly tied to these sightings, but the incidents have created a disruption in operations,” said Karen Pojmann, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. “We don’t have counter-drone technology or an efficient way to monitor and regulate air space 24/7, so it’s likely that more incidents have occurred than have been reported.”
Confirmation of such drone flights have been made at other correctional facilities across the nation. Drones have been intercepted before entering prisons with parcels carrying drugs, phones, and weapons. This prompted other states to pass similar bills that would penalize drone pilots using drones in such manners. House Bill 1898 has been sent to the Senate and is awaiting approval. The bill states that it, “Creates the offenses of unlawful use of unmanned aircraft over a correctional center, unlawful use of unmanned aircraft over an open-air facility, and unlawful use of unmanned aircraft over a mental health hospital.” If passed, any drone flying within 400ft of such a facility would be considered in violation. The offense would be seen as a Class A misdemeanor. If caught, the drone pilot could be charged with a felony offense, receive a lofty fine, and a maximum prison sentence of one year.
The Department of Corrections fully supports this bill, and hopes that Missouri will join the 11 other states that have passed similar bills to control the safety of prison environments. The bill being passed does not mean that pilots will suddenly stop trying to infiltrate prison yards with their drones, but hopefully it will deter them to some extent. To fully stop drones from entering airspace over zones proposed in House Bill 1898 would mean that the FAA would have to place geofencing blocks around the prisons, stadiums, or hospitals. These geofences would make it impossible for a drone to fly over the restricted airspace. The goal is to keep people safe as bill supporter Rep. Shane Roden said. “People can potentially get hurt,” Roden said. “And we’re putting in place a mechanism that says that you can’t fly over this stuff.”