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U.S. Congress clears the way for limits on drone flights near chemical plants and refineries

Industry is concerned about potential accidents as well as espionage

by Glenn Hess
July 19, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 30

Credit: Shutterstock
Congress has authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict the use of drones near chemical plants and refineries.

The Senate gave final congressional approval on July 13 to bipartisan legislation that paves the way for restrictions on the operation of drones near chemical plants, oil refineries, and other “critical infrastructure” facilities.

The legislation would require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish procedures for chemical plants and refineries, as well as for energy production, transmission, and distribution facilities, to petition the agency to limit or ban operation of unmanned aircraft close to a facility.

The provision is included in a bill (H.R. 636) that authorizes FAA programs at current funding levels through September 2017. The House of Representatives approved the measure on July 11, and the Senate passed the legislation by a vote of 90-4 on July 13. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on July 15.

Drones, unmanned aircraft flown remotely, have surged in recreational popularity. This has raised concerns that a drone could accidentally crash into an industrial facility, hit power lines, or be used by a terrorist to surveil potential targets.

Another worry is the threat of industrial espionage through aerial photography. Industry’s anxiety is focused on the possibility that “enterprising individuals will take aerial photos at these sites and try to sell them to competitors,” says John J. Durkay, legal counsel for the International Safety Training Council, which trains contractors and employees at chemical and refining plants in southeastern Texas.

“Drones photographing units can compromise facility trade secrets.” Durkay tells C&EN.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents major U.S. chemical companies, urged Congress to restrict drone use around the industry’s facilities.



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