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Legislation would increase penalty for flying drones over Eastman, other facilities

Hank Hayes • Jan 31, 2019 at 9:06 AM

Legislation has been filed in Tennessee that would increase the penalty for flying a drone over a “critical infrastructure facility” without the business operator’s consent from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The bill appears to have been written for Kingsport-based Eastman and other Tennessee companies concerned about unmanned aircraft hovering over their facilities.

“The legislation, similar to what many other states have passed in recent years, has broad support from industries all across Tennessee,” Eastman spokeswoman Amanda Allman said in an email. “As technologies evolve, government and industry must work together to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the safety and security of our facilities and communities. Eastman supports this legislation, which strengthens current state law prohibiting drones from flying over industrial facilities and critical infrastructure, including but not limited to Eastman’s manufacturing site in Kingsport.”

Drone pilot Calvin Sneed is a retired journalist who has used his drone to take video of the Riverview community next to Eastman.

“I see this bill. ... It’s going to be confusing to somebody,” Sneed said. “Basically what you are going to have, someone who sends a drone up sends on to somebody’s property and comes back down, they could be charged with a felony now. ... What if you’re standing on public property and you send a drone straight up in the air and aim it toward the industrial site but don’t fly it on their property? ... That flies in the face of the First Amendment.”

Eastman apparently began having more issues with drones after its Oct. 4, 2017 explosion — with zero fatalities — that was captured live by WJHL’s camera atop Bays Mountain.

Drones are increasingly coming to the attention of state policymakers who are attempting to strike a balance between public safety and commercial use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

“Energy companies are interested in using drones to survey far-flung equipment, but concerns exist over how drones could be used in attacks against these facilities,” the NCSL reported.

So far, the organization says, 41 states have enacted laws addressing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and an additional three states have adopted resolutions. Common issues addressed in the legislation include defining what UAS, or drones are; how they can be used by law enforcement or other state agencies; how they can be used by the general public; and regulations for their use in hunting game.

In June 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a set of regulations for the commercial use of small UAS, which took effect on Aug. 29, 2016. The rules prohibit the operation of a drone over any people not directly involved in its operation, prohibit nighttime use and prohibit attaching any hazardous materials to a drone. However, the rules did not specifically address critical infrastructure and facilities — aside from airports.

The Tennessee bill is sponsored in the Senate by Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and in the House by Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport.

“Eastman was involved, but lots of industries were pushing for this kind of legislation,” Lundberg said in a text message when asked if Eastman wrote the bill.

Said Hulsey: “I’m hoping as a felony it will allow law enforcement a greater window to investigate and arrest on probable cause rather than the restrictions of a misdemeanor.”

A Class C misdemeanor carries a penalty of not greater than 30 days in jail or a fine not to exceed $50, or both. If the bill passes, the penalty would move to a Class E felony, which carries a penalty of not less than one year nor more than 6 years in prison. In addition, the jury may assess a fine not to exceed $3,000.

For more, go to www.capitol.tn.gov. The bill’s number is SB 306.

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