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Wisconsin Assembly votes to prohibit drones over prisons

The Wisconsin Assembly began a push on Feb. 18 to get tougher on rogue drone use, passing a bill that would prohibit flying the machines over prisons and another that would create penalties for using them in crimes.

The bills follow a series of incidents across the country in which smugglers flew drugs, pornography or other contraband over prison walls. Wisconsin has not dealt with drone smuggling, but legislators say they want to be proactive.

The first bill would impose a $5,000 fine for flying a drone over a state correctional institution.

The bill's authors removed a provision that would have allowed municipalities to establish additional no-fly zones for drones. The provision would have allowed municipalities to impose fines up to $2,500.

Drone operators and technology advocates testified at the hearing that it would create a patchwork of regulations, limit opportunities for commercial drone operators and clash with federal rules.

The second bill would increase penalties someone used a drone in a crime. People who used a drone to commit a less-serious misdemeanor would face up to $10,000 in fines and up to a year in jail. If it is a more serious misdemeanor, the status of the crime would change to a felony, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 in fines and up to two years in prison.

Defendants who use a drone to commit a felony would see their fines increase by $5,000 and face up to an additional five years in prison.

The Assembly passed both bills on voice votes this week, sending them to the Senate.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires drone operators to register with the agency and has been developing other regulations for drones, or unmanned aircraft systems. Almost 300,000 drone owners registered in the first month since Dec. 21, when the requirement began.

Local and state lawmakers have stepped in with their own regulations across the country, with some criticizing the FAA for being too lax. About 45 states considered restrictions on unmanned aircraft systems in 2015, according to the FAA.

The FAA warns it could lead to a "patchwork quilt" of regulations and stipulates that local and state regulations must fit with federal rules. 

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