Lawmakers introduce bills targeting drone misuse

HILO, Hawai‘i — State lawmakers are taking proactive measures to prevent using drones to commit crimes.

A pair of bills in the Hawai‘i Legislature would establish “misuse of uncrewed aircraft” as a felony offense in the state.

The measures, Senate Bill 2194 and House Bill 1869, list a wide range of prohibited actions involving drones, from operating one while intoxicated to mounting and using weapons upon one.

Under the bills, the misuse of uncrewed aircraft could range from a Class C to a Class A felony, depending on the specific offense.

The Class C tier — which would carry the specific charge of “misuse of an uncrewed aircraft in the third degree” — would include tampering with a drone’s registration number, using a drone while intoxicated, causing more than $750 in damage with a drone, injuring someone with a drone, operating a drone with a revoked certification or hindering the operation of law enforcement officers or emergency responders with a drone. A Class C felony in Hawai‘i carries a maximum possible charge of five years in prison or a $10,000 fine.

Second-degree misuse of a drone would be a Class B felony, and would include disabling a drone’s required identification signals or anti-collision lighting, causing more than $20,000 in damage with a drone, or causing substantial injury with one. Class B felonies carry maximum sentences of 10 years in prison or a $20,000 fine.

The most severe violations in the bills would be Class A felonies, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and include arming a drone with a firearm, taser, explosive or weapon of mass destruction; disrupting the operation of a crewed aircraft using a drone; causing serious bodily injury with a drone; smuggling contraband into a prison with a drone; or otherwise using a drone in the commission of another felony.

Currently, the most pertinent state law on the books regarding drones is one that establishes “reckless operation of an aircraft” as a misdemeanor offense.

According to a Hawai‘i Police Department statement, no violations of that law have been recorded in Hawai‘i County in the past year.

Tommy Johnson, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said there have been several incidents of drones flying over state correctional facilities — which is prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration — and at least two instances of drones attempting to smuggle drugs into prisons.

While Johnson said those smuggler drones were intercepted, he added that the next incident might not be so easily defused.

“It’s kind of a nightmare scenario,” Johnson said. “What if it’s a weapon next time? That could lead to a hostage situation.”

Johnson said he believes the measures should be uncontroversial, saying they merely preempt dangerous actions that will likely become more prevalent as drone technology improves and proliferates.

“Some people who use drones might not like it, but they’re not trying to stifle drone technology,” Johnson said.

Nonetheless, at least one person doesn’t like the bills: public testifier Michael Rice wrote at a hearing for HB 1869 earlier this month that he opposed the measure because “if I wanted to help develop a drone armed with a taser for police use I’m now prevented from doing so because of this … law.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee deferred SB 2194 on Wednesday. No future committee hearings for HB 1869 have yet been scheduled.


Reporter Michael Brestovansky can be reached at


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