Senate committee tackles drone surveillance issue

Drones would be banned from flying over critical infrastructure sites, such as chemical plants, refineries and water treatment facilities, under a bill approved Tuesday by a Senate panel.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Bodi White would make it a crime to use unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of, gather evidence or collect information about, or photographically or electronically record a specifically targeted critical infrastructure without the owner’s consent.

“It will be very valuable technology in the future,” said White, R-Central. “We all recognize there’s a downside.”

For instance, White said a package flown in and dropped by a drone could explode at a plant or drop harmful contaminants into a water supply. He said drones could be used for terrorism activity and key infrastructures are prime targets.

“There’s very little, if any, regulation right now,” he said. “There’s going to have to be some regulation for privacy and critical infrastructure.”

The state’s chemical industry backed Senate Bill 356, which cleared the Senate Committee on Judiciary C without opposition.

“After looking at our safety procedures … this is an area that needed some type of protection, something to discourage people,” said Greg Bowser , Louisiana Chemical Association lobbyist .

White said t he legislation would cover drones flown below 1,000 feet so as not to conflict with the Federal Aviation Administration’s jurisdiction.

The committee at White’s urging inserted a provision under which government homeland security and emergency preparedness entities could use the drones so they can assess situations that may arise involving critical infrastructure sites.

Another White-pushed change to SB356 would impose a fine of up to $500 or up to six months in jail, or both, for a first offense.

A second and subsequent offense would bring a fine of up to $2,000 or up to a year in jail, or both.

The bill as it passed committee includes treble damages in cases where the violation resulted in profit or monetary gain. White said he would strip the provision when it hits the Senate floor.

“There’s a concern of safety. These are volatile areas,” said committee chairman Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe.

R etired U.S. Army Gen. Russel Honor √© said the state needs “ a 21st - c entury reporting system to monitor what’s going on in the plants.”

“Right now , all of our law is company self-reporting,” he said. “A drone in the right person’s hand is information for you . ”

Honoré said the state Department of Environmental Quality should have a fleet of drones.

A ccording to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states enacted 19 new laws related to drone activity last year, including Texas and Florida.

T he new laws ranged from limits on use by law enforcement, preventing interference with hunters and fishermen, moratoriums on use by state and local personnel, and spelling out what constitutes lawful uses.