Drone bill advances in Tennessee legislature

Hank Hayes • Feb 19, 2019 at 5:34 PM

NASHVILLE — Legislation 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 advanced in the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

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

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

“Candidly, there is obviously a proliferation of drones in about every family, and just about every neighborhood has one and someone is usually doing it just for fun,” Lundberg, the committee’s vice chairman, said. “With that proliferation, I think we need more of an impediment for folks flying these over critical infrastructure, and candidly, a Class C misdemeanor does not provide that.”

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.

Lundberg added an amendment to the bill to include communication towers.

The state’s Fiscal Review Committee suggested the bill’s fiscal impact would be “not significant” because of an expected insignificant number of prosecutions. There have been “zero state court convictions” under the misdemeanor statute, the committee noted.

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).

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 bill passed unanimously in committee and moves on to the Senate Calendar Committee, which sends legislation to the Senate floor.

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

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