Thanks to advancing capabilities and greater accessibility, the use of drones is continuing to increase. In fact, global drone sales reached $4.3 million in 2015, a 167 percent jump from two years ago. This surge should come as no surprise as people find more and more useful ways to put drones to work.
Of course, this increased use can present some new challenges when it comes to ensuring the safe and responsible use of drones. That is where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) comes in. The skyrocketing use of drones has gained the attention of regulators, and the FAA recently proposed a new set of rules to try to tackle some of the issues surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or “drones.”
In a nutshell, the FAA’s proposed regulatory framework would allow for the routine use of certain small UAS (under 55 pounds) in conducting non-recreational/commercial operations. The rule would limit these types of uses to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.
Room for Improvement
While the FAA is off to a good start, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) recently filed comments offering suggestions on how to improve the proposal, especially where it concerns the safety of chemical facilities.
We have recommended the FAA make four critical modifications to the rule to enhance industry’s ability to safeguard its people and operations:
1. Broaden the definition of UAS to further protect chemical facilities from other model aircraft that pose a safety and security risk
As it’s currently written, the FAA’s proposal would not apply to model aircraft or casual use of UAS in and around critical infrastructure, including chemical facilities and operations.
While model aircraft operators are allowed to fly for hobby or recreational purposes only, ACC and our members believe the use of such aircraft around chemical facilities can pose a significant safety and security concern that the FAA must address.
Due to their small size, maneuverability, affordability, and load-capacities, small UAS may be used intentionally by criminals and terrorists to commit criminal or terrorist acts, including unauthorized surveillance and the introduction of explosive devices at critical infrastructure facilities.
2. Ensure chemical facility staff can continue to make routine use of UAS to protect operations
Facility employees and contractors could employ drones to replace risky manual inspections of equipment that would otherwise be difficult to reach. UAS also make it possible for facility staff to survey equipment in hazardous operating or environmental conditions from a safe distance, which significantly reduces potential health and safety risks.
Other uses and benefits of legally allowed drones around chemical facilities for official purposes include the following:
- Plant and/or process equipment monitoring and inspections
- Environmental and safety inspections to include flare stack monitoring
- Emergency response operations to include incident, disaster, and spill response
- Security surveillance to include perimeter security and access control
- Operations research and development
- Educational and training uses for company personnel, contractors, and local response personnel
ACC strongly believes these and the many other beneficial applications of small UAS operations for the chemical industry should be included in the FAA rule. Chemical industry professionals should be allowed to continue to use advanced technologies at hand today to protect and inspect operations.
3. Recognize other equivalent government credentialing programs for operating UAS
One key part of the FAA proposal is to properly vet individuals before they are allowed to fly UAS. It’s an important rule for people that do not already have clearance to operate such specialized equipment.
However, it’s a duplicative, costly, and unnecessary rule for employees and contractors in the chemical industry, many of whom have already undergone extensive background checks in order to perform their jobs.
ACC believes that the recognition of other equivalent U.S. Government credentialing programs would result in substantial savings in costs, both to the federal government as well as the owners/operators, and would streamline the amount of time required to issue an operator certificate.
4. Limit requirements for FAA accident reports if they are already mandated by OSHA
To ensure proper oversight of small UAS operations, the FAA’s proposed rule would require a small UAS operator report to the FAA any small UAS operation that results in an injury to a person or damage to property other than the small unmanned aircraft.
Given existing regulations and requirements, ACC recommends that the FAA defer to the existing reporting and investigating mechanism that involve a small UAS in an industrial setting.
Specifically, ACC recommends that no FAA accident report be required for workplace injuries resulting from the use of small UAS in an industrial setting that is covered by OSHA 29 CFR 1904, “Reporting and Recording Occupational injury and illness.”
ACC believes this is a suitable compromise, one that considers the minimal risk associated with the use of small UAS while ensuring the safety and security of the public and the National Airspace System. Considering existing safety regulations in place under OSHA would also help the FAA prioritize its resources appropriately and focus on higher risk activities.
Supporting Safety at All Levels
In addition to federal efforts, many states are also working on rules to govern the use of the drones. ACC is actively engaged with those states and has offered policymakers recommendations to help them develop a workable, uniform approach to managing the safe use of drones. Important chemical producing states such as Louisiana and Texas have already passed legislation, and they have been joined by other states including Arizona and Nevada.
As the use drones continues to climb, we will work closely with policymakers at all levels of government, including the FAA, to make sure we can all enjoy the benefits of this new technology without jeopardizing the safety and security of the people that work at chemical facilities as well as their surrounding communities.