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Congress Moving To Restrict Drone Flights Near Chemical Plants

Security: House of Representatives bill seeks to prohibit unmanned aircraft near critical infrastructure

by Glenn Hess
February 19, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 8

Photograph shows a flying drone.
Credit: Shutterstock
Chemical facilities fear that photo-snapping drones could compromise trade secrets.

In response to the soaring use of drones, Congress has taken the first step toward prohibiting their unauthorized flight in the airspace over and near chemical plants and petroleum refineries.

A bill (H.R. 4441) to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) includes a provision that would direct the agency to set strict new guidelines to keep the unmanned aircraft away from critical infrastructure facilities. The House of Representatives’ Transportation & Infrastructure Committee approved the bill earlier this month.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) says he offered the provision “as a way to protect our facilities and their employees from potentially hazardous and unauthorized drone activity.” Babin represents an area east of Houston that is home to more petrochemical and refining facilities than any other congressional district.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry trade group, says the legislation targets the “potential misuse of drones for illicit purposes without interfering with their growing use by the public for recreation and their use for commercial applications.”

Perhaps the greatest threat is industrial espionage through aerial photography, 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.

“Sometimes enterprising individuals take it upon themselves to fly over a site and then see if they can sell the photos” to a competitor, Durkay tells C&EN. “Drones photographing units can compromise facility trade secrets.”

Drones malfunctioning and crashing are another worry. “These facilities have a lot of power lines, communication towers, and so on,” Durkay says. “Especially problematic is that drones are getting quite a bit larger.”

Because of their maneuverability, affordability, and capacity to carry items, terrorists could use small drones to attack industrial targets with explosives, ACC says.

The bill now goes to the House floor for a vote. The Senate is expected to draft separate legislation to reauthorize FAA.



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