Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Wednesday

April 3, 2013

Drone controversy hits home for NMC students

TRAVERSE CITY — Jared Beaudry and his classmates are frustrated with friends who confuse the Predator drones used in Afghanistan with the more peaceful uses they’re learning about at Northwestern Michigan College.

“It’s because they’re ignorant,” Beaudry said. “It’s just not the case.”

Right now, only law enforcement agencies can use drones. Approval for commercial uses — such as aerial scanning cornfields for pests— could come about within the next 18 months, said Tony Sauerbrey, who heads up NMC’s specialized drone program — the only one in Michigan that offers operational instruction of what Sauerbrey prefers to call unmanned aerial vehicles.

Drones hit the news recently when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul pressed President Barack Obama for an answer on whether drones can be used to kill Americans on foreign soil. A U.S. Senate subcommittee held hearings on privacy and law enforcement issues.

A Michigan legislator recently introduced a bill that would ban the arming of drones and allow their use only with a search warrant or in the event of imminent danger. Information gained in an “unauthorized manner” couldn’t be used in courts. The bill also requires reporting on the use of drones and data collected.

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said the bill hasn’t been on his radar since the department can’t afford to buy a $100,000 drone.

Bensley talked to NMC about sharing drones for law enforcement uses. Not only would it save money, it also would give NMC students a chance to practice outside of the dirt airstrip at Yuba Airport, the only place they’re approved to operate the small planes. But the federal government denied the request, Bensley said.

“We can’t even get off the ground yet, so it’s no concern,” he said.

Mayor Michael Estes supports restrictions on drones and hopes the proposed legislation passes.

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