In my seven years serving as executive administrator of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Office of Aeronautics and director of the Michigan Aeronautics Commission (MAC), I balance protecting the public safety while ensuring aeronautics continues to grow and flourish in the state. No greater example has been the rise of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or more commonly known as drones. Like every other community across the U.S., we face the growing concern over their use and local municipalities creating a patchwork of inconsistent regulations. As this is happening, our state looks to drones as an emerging technological solution for bridge and runway inspections, public safety, and the development of connected and autonomous vehicles.
In 2016, a state law was passed establishing a 27-member UAS Task Force made up of professionals from MDOT, law enforcement, the UAS industry, real estate, municipalities, other state agencies, and other stakeholders. The task force's charge was simple: to consider commercial and private uses of UAS, landowner and privacy rights, general rules and regulations for safe UAS operations. Last November, we presented to the governor and state Legislature a final report with 13 recommendations aimed at deterring misuse while enabling opportunities related to this emerging industry.
Following the recommendations, lawmakers moved quickly this year to introduce new legislation to properly regulate UAS, without overstepping Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules on commercial operations and hobbyist rights. One of the key pieces of legislation was defining a UAS as an extension of an individual and prohibiting interference with key facilities, like prisons, refineries, or transportation facilities. A violator could be punished with four years in prison, a $2,500 fine, or both.
"our state looks to drones as an emerging technological solution for bridge and runway inspections, public safety, and the development of connected and autonomous vehicles"
Beyond the punitive side, the legislative package would require MDOT to create a UAS program office that will not only guide future policy decisions in consultation with the Legislature, but also will spearhead the state’s education and outreach efforts to ensure awareness both for hobbyists and commercial operations of the state and federal rules for UAS use. We have always had an eye education and outreach rather than a heavy-handed approach, plus the technology is constantly changing, as are the rules, and having a mechanism to educate the public is critical.
We also take an active role in looking at UAS as a cost-effective tool for MDOT. One of the department's first uses of UAS has been for bridge inspections, allowing a worker to fly a UAS in locations that are difficult and costly to access. Sometimes bridge inspections require us to close lanes, further adding to traffic congestion. With a UAS, a pilot can fly it away from the road and traffic and maneuver it directly under the structure to get close-up views. We also are flying UAS to support functions within our aeronautics office, including airport inspections, tall structure inspection and compliance, and supporting the MDOT photography team. Through careful deployment, a UAS can be quickly launched near an airport to see if there are any obstructions or structures that might hinder airplanes from landing or taking off.
These uses are just scratching the surface on UAS. Michigan is still home to the auto industry and has a strong entrepreneurial spirit where companies are continually looking at new opportunities to use drones. With the opening of Mcity in Ann Arbor and the American Center for Mobility (ACM) in Ypsilanti for the testing of connected and autonomous vehicles, UAS can be tested and integrated with these centers. MDOT has begun to explore potential synergies between UAS operations and existing connected highway infrastructure, and the deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles in Michigan. ACM and MDOT have a long history of working together on automobile tech and are currently looking at the connection between this facility and advanced UAS testing.
Thanks to the hard-working efforts of the UAS Task Force members, we have set a good foundation for UAS policy that will pay dividends into the future and avoid a patchwork of local regulations. Other states have created similar teams of experts to help guide policy and encourage the development of UAS future technology. Working collaboratively, we can guide the successful implementation of this technology in our daily lives in a safe and effective manner.