Texas Politics

Flying a drone near a military base could mean jail time under Texas Senate bill

State lawmakers are cracking down on drone activity over Texas military installations — including Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base — amid fears that drones might be endangering military flights or snooping on sensitive defense facilities.

The state Senate on Wednesday gave unanimous approval to a bill by Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth that would restrict individuals from flying drones — also known as unmanned aerial systems — on or near military bases. Violations could result in fines and jail time.

“Preventing drone encroachments will enhance the security of our military installations and our crucial military infrastructure,” Powell said in a statement. The bill had no public opposition and sailed through the Senate on a “local and uncontested” calendar reserved for non-controversial legislation.

The Democratic senator introduced Senate Bill 2299 in response to multiple drone incursions at the joint reserve base, which is located on Fort Worth’s west side, just across from the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics plant that manufactures the F-35 supersonic warplane.

Testifying on behalf of the bill at a Senate committee hearing in early April, Navy Capt. Jonathan R. Townsend, commanding officer of the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, said that drone incursions have prompted growing worries about safety and security at Texas military facilities.

Townsend chairs the Texas Commanders Council, composed of the commanders of the state’s 15 major military installations. Texas also has numerous reserve and National Guard installations.

The Star-Telegram reported that a camera-equipped drone was found on the taxiway of the Fort Worth base in January 2018, the second drone sighting over a period of several months. The Promark Drone P70-CW had a built-in Wi-Fi signal and the ability to stream, record and photograph live footage.

Townsend told senators of an incursion in which a quadcopter drone was witnessed over the north end of the installation heading over Lake Worth. About 30 minutes later, he said, the aircraft was witnessed again “in a sort of surveillance mode” over a sensitive part of the base.

“This was the first occasion where the issue of intent came into question in my mind,” the commander said. “Was it a recreational drone operator or was it somebody who had some other potential ill intent for my installation?”

Drones, which have surged in popularity, have played a number of vital civic roles, including search and rescue, but they have also drawn headlines for unwanted incursions over airports, sports events and other venues. Drone activity over Gatwick Airport in London in December resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of flights, disrupting the travel plans of more than 140,000 passengers.

A spokeswoman at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, one of the world’s largest, said the drone issue is under study at the facility but declined to elaborate.

“DFW is looking into drone detection options, but we are not ready to comment at this time,” Sarah Rodriguez, manager of communications and marketing, said in a recent email.

Experts have also raised concerns about the possibility of a collision or close encounter between drones and military or commercial aircraft.

“One of the real challenges we’re concerned about is a drone or a UAS interfering with an aircraft, either fixed-wing or rotary,” said Dan Kessler, assistant director of transportation at North Central Texas Council of Governments. “The possibility of the incident occurring is relatively low but the consequences, if it were to occur, would be catastrophic.”

Kessler, who also testified on behalf of Powell’s bill, said in a telephone interview this week that he is unaware of any instance in which an aircraft has been forced down by a drone, but said that aviation experts and officials are nevertheless “very concerned about the potential for a drone getting in the flight path” of a larger aircraft unless safeguards are imposed.

Security is another big issue, he said.

“A lot of these drones have cameras,” he said. “We don’t need drones flying over military training bases … encroaching on sensitive military training operations.”

FAA regulations already restrict drone activity above military bases but Powell’s proposed statute would add another layer of protection by enabling state and local law enforcement officers to enforce drone restrictions.

The bill adds military installations to a list of previously designated “critical infrastructure facilities” that include prisons, jails, wastewater facilities, telecommunications, oil and gas facilities, power plants and other utilities.

The statute prohibits drones from flying over or coming in contact with the designated facilities, or coming close enough to cause a disruption in its normal operations.

First offense violations constitute a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail. Subsequent offenses would be Class A misdemeanors, punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $4,000.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where backers hope to push it to final passage before the Legislature adjourns on May 27. It would take effect on Sept. 1.

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