You Can’t Put Lipstick on a Bad Law: Criminalization of Drones Flying over Pig Farms

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, unmanned drones became critical tools for rescue teams in Texas. Described as a “landmark in the evolution of drone usage” by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, pro-pilots of the small, camera-enabled flying-machines aided the National Guard in creating maps to identify the locations of survivors, show landscape changes, and identify damage to infrastructure. But the good news for drones was short-lived.

On September 1, 2017, only a few days after Harvey’s landfall on Texas’ southeastern coast, House Bill 1643 went into effect in the state of Texas. The law made it a crime to operate a drone over certain animal feeding operations, telecommunications facilities, and oil and gas facilities. Violation of the legislation is a class B misdemeanor carrying a punishment of up to 180 days in jail or penalty of up to $2000. And not only does the law limit where drones can be flown within the state, but it also bars local governments from making their own regulations regarding drone usage.

Media attention towards the bill has been primarily focused around the prohibition of flying drones over animal feeding operations because the justification for the limitation is seen by some a bizarre veil. Whereas restricting the flight of drones near telecommunications facilities is defended by the desire to prevent knocking down power lines, the ban above feeding operations is rationalized by more interesting, perhaps imaginative, threats.

State Representative Drew Springer, an author of the bill, cites concern to the security risk of domestic biowarfare by those who disagree with eating domesticated animals as a basis for the law. “[Foot-and-mouth] disease could be spread through drones very easily,” stated Rep. Springer. Though unable to cite any past examples of such a tactic, the Representative reassured that threat of attacks-from-above are a “massive fear for the economy of Texas, for the food supply in Texas, and really all of the United States.”

Opponents are very critical of the bill, stating numerous reasons for why the legislation is bad. For one, the acts that lawmakers are concerned could occur absent the new legislation are already crimes; in fact, they are acts of terrorism. It is doubted that an additional half-year of jail time would act as much deterrent to terrorists. Instead, critics argue that the stated reason for the law is a cloak for its true motivations—to scare away journalists and activists from keeping tabs on industrial activity.

For example, several years ago David Mimlitch, a recreational drone operator, inadvertently caught on his drone’s camera a Dallas slaughterhouse dumping raw pig blood into a creek.

Authorities traced the activity to Columbia Meat Packing Company. The company and two executives were indicted by a grand jury on 18 counts, although the charges were later dropped. Nevertheless, the company closed its slaughterhouse, later reopening as a meat packing facility. Under the new law, Mimlitch could have been jailed for nearly six-months.

Josh Cohn, political director of EFF-Austin, a digital rights organization, also argues that research will be hampered by this law. Josh Winegarner, director of government relations for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, disputes this criticism, stating that ranchers have “done a lot of stuff with journalists.”

As for removing the power of local governments to regulate drones, critics accuse the lawmakers of attempting to usurp the power of cities to pass ordinances to address local issues in the name of protecting corporations. They argue that the effect of the bill’s requirements will be to “hinder school districts’ ability to quickly respond to safety and privacy risks to our students and communities.” While that may be the result, Rep. Springer asserts that the motivation was not to protect, but instead to help companies that are experimenting with drone delivery, like Google or Amazon. By removing local governments’ authority to regulate drones, Springer says that these corporations will need to worry less about a “patchwork quilt of regulations that would have prevented them from going forward with that technology.” This will help the new, revolutionary technology grow.

No matter the motivation for House Bill 1643, the effect is unquestionably favorable to corporations. The lesson: Don’t mess with Texas’ companies.