A new Illinois law has banned the use of drones to interfere with hunting and fishing activities, but the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals group isn’t feeling particularly grounded.
The law, introduced in August by Illinois State Rep. Adam Brown (R-Champaign), was a response to reports that PETA was planning to use aerial drones to capture footage of hunters engaged in illegal activities such as shooting deer from the side of the road or using a firearm while intoxicated. The famously outspoken and tactically bold animal-rights group, which calls sport hunting “cruel and unnecessary,” said incriminating footage of hunters behaving badly could be delivered to game wardens tasked with protecting wildlife.
“Slob hunters may need to rethink the idea that they can get away with murder, alone out there in the woods with no one watching,” said PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, in a statement at the time.
But PETA’s plan, first announced in April, caused a vocal outcry among hunting advocates, with many hunters vowing to shoot down the drones if they came across them. “Bet on it,” wrote Chris Bennett on the Farm Press Blog. “American hunters will be waiting on incoming PETA drones and there won’t be many return flights.”
In response to the controversy, Brown introduced a bill to amend the state’s Wildlife Code, making it a misdemeanor to use a drone in a way that “interferes with another person’s lawful taking of wildlife or aquatic life.” The bill passed in May and was signed into law by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.
Some news outlets, such as Breitbart, reported that the new law will ground PETA’s unmanned vehicles, but according to PETA, the law will not affect its drone program. In a phone interview, Jared Goodman, a lawyer for the PETA Foundation, pointed out that the law prohibits interfering with “lawful” hunting activities, whereas the PETA drones are meant to monitor “illegal” hunting activities. “If these drones are used as intended and as advertised by PETA, neither the wildlife nor the hunters will be disturbed,” Goodman said. “It’s simply to capture illegal activity.”
Indeed, PETA is already selling drones in its catalog. Dubbed “Air Angles,” the vehicles are selling for $324.99 a piece, complete with wi-fi and an HD camera. The quadcopters are essentially Parrot AR model drones sold with decals of the PETA and Air Angels logos. The unmanned vehicles have a range of 165 feet, according to the specifications on PETA’s website.
Some commenters on pro-hunting message boards and websites are questioning whether the model has the technical capabilities of carrying out the type of surveillance PETA says it can, citing the limited range and low price tag. Goodman countered, “It’s capable of doing exactly what PETA suggests it can.”
The PETA drone is being pitched as “The New Hobby for Animal Protectionists.” The “hobby” designation is an important modifier. Currently, anyone seeking to operate a drone for business purposes must obtain special approval from the FAA.
“This is purely for hobbyists,” Goodman stressed. “They’re for recreational use. People are interested in wildlife and they want to make sure there’s no illegal activity going on.”
However, recreational drone use is still covered by the FAA, which means, under current guidelines, the drones should generally be flown within the line of sight of the operator and at less than 400 feet from the ground. Both of these guidelines could curtail their usefulness as a surveillance tool.
The PETA drones first went on sale in October, and there is a huge interest in them, according to PETA. Goodman said 11 units sold in the first 24 hours, although he said he was unsure how many have been sold since. You can view the unit’s full specs for yourself here.