Two quadricopter drones
Two quadricopter drones, typical of the designs popular with hobbyists. Photo: Gregor Hartl/Ars Electronica

Berkeley City Council will tonight consider a proposal from the Peace & Justice Commission to ban the use of drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — in the city’s airspace. The recommended ordinance would also prohibit the city, or any agency of the city, from purchasing, borrowing, testing or using drones. Hobbyist use is exempted “as long as those devices are not equipped with any kind of camera or audio surveillance equipment.”

Alameda County Supervisors last week tabled a proposal from the county sheriff to use a $31,646 grant to buy a surveillance drone, following protests from the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation about the lack of privacy protections. 

“We need a real community conversation about what is appropriate technology for law enforcement,” said George Lippman, chairperson of the Peace and Justice Commission. “I think the proposal is the beginning of the conversation.”

But the blanket ban recommended by the Peace and Justice Commission faces some pushback.

“We certainly shouldn’t have any armed drones,” said Councilman Gordon Wozniak. “I don’t think that’s controversial. And I think most people don’t want drones for surveillance. But I think in a disaster, certain kinds of drones could be used for search and rescue. The other potential that I’ve heard would be in a hostage situation.”

Wozniak said that he would suggest to the council that the issue be referred to either the Police Review Commission or the Fire and Disaster Commission. The PRC drew up the guidelines that the city uses to decide when to use helicopters or dogs from other agencies. Wozniak said drone use could be subjected to similar guidelines.

A further issue for the city is that airspace is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, not by the city. The FAA already has a number of regulations in place on drones, including one prohibiting their use for commercial purposes and a restriction to fly under 400 feet.

Regulations, however, are shifting. A law passed by Congress in February requires the FAA to integrate UAVs into the US aviation system by 2015. In May, the FAA issued a regulation allowing public safety organizations to use drones weighing up to 25 pounds without a permit. California State Senator Alex Padilla earlier this month introduced Senate Bill 15 that would regulate drone use in California, citing concerns about privacy.

“I’m sympathetic to the instincts of the Berkeley initiative,” said Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, a manufacturer of small drones used by hobbyists and others, and a Berkeley resident. “Drones are part of a bigger debate on what kind of privacy we should have. But I’d love a little more nuanced view. They’re lumping children’s toys with military weaponry.”

Anderson, until recently Editor-in-Chief of Wired, said there is a long history of technologies that were once exclusively used by the military developing into consumer uses. He pointed to the Internet and computers as examples.

“We’re right at that stage. The technology is now democratizing,” he said. “We’re absolutely sure that people will find uses for the technology that the military has never even thought of.”

Among the uses where Anderson said the technology already exists are wildlife management, crop surveying, search and rescue in wilderness areas, creating wireless hotspots on the fly, personal video bots for windsurfers, and aerial views of children’s sports. He said the exception for hobbyist uses in the Berkeley proposal ignored that it is almost impossible to buy a model aircraft today without a camera. “There are cameras in everything,” Anderson said.

“Robotics is a key skill kids are developing for the 21st century,” he said. “I’d be sorry if my city banned that.”

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...