FBI warns drones pose potential risk to critical infrastructure after some spotted over Louisiana chemical facilities


YURI GRIPAS/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

CNN  — 

Drones have been spotted flying over Louisiana chemical facilities and a pipeline over the past year and a half, prompting an FBI warning on Thursday about the potential for espionage and terrorism at critical infrastructure facilities, according to a report obtained by CNN.

“[O]verflights can be an effective means of surveilling critical infrastructure because facility security personnel and law enforcement officers have limited options to detect and respond to” this type of drone activity, the report says.

For instance, on July 29, observers saw multiple drones flying over a Louisiana chemical facility at night. The group of drones flew several feet above the facility before splitting in two directions, according to the report.

Additionally, on March 8, 2021, a drone was discovered flying near a Louisiana pipeline. A law enforcement officer located the drone operator and discovered they had taken pictures, the report says. It’s unclear what action, if any, was taken by law enforcement.

According to the report, there are no indications of nefarious activity that directly threatens these facilities. However, drones could be used for documenting patterns of activity or the physical layout of the targeted critical infrastructure facilities, the report says.

The FBI encourages facility operators to contact their local field office if industrial espionage, terrorism or other criminal activity is suspected.

“While most drone flights over infrastructure is innocent enough, it creates a real safety, operational, and security concern. Drones are a great tool, but they can also be used as a modern day explosive weapon in the wrong hands,” Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, told CNN.

“Industry is well aware of the tactics to map, surveil, and drop projectiles into very critical sites and they often deploy onsite situational awareness systems to provide early warning,” Harrell added.

Even when drones are spotted, finding the drone operator can be difficult, according to the FBI report, which notes that “current security measures at critical infrastructure might not be able to detect [unmanned aircraft systems] incursions or determine what information a UAS has collected.”

The report was prepared by the FBI New Orleans Field Office in coordination with several federal agencies, including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration, to alert critical infrastructure security personnel at chemical facilities of the continuing risk of unmanned aircraft systems.

Last year, CNN reported that a drone that crashed near a Pennsylvania power substation in 2020 was likely meant to damage or disrupt the electric equipment, according to a federal law enforcement bulletin.

The July 2020 incident was the first known case of a “modified unmanned aircraft system likely being used in the United States to specifically target energy infrastructure,” according to a memo from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center.