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

More than a year after the Berkeley City Council asked three city panels to take a look at the use of drones around town, two starkly different recommendations are slated to come before officials in a special work session later this month.

The city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission has made a recommendation to allow the police and fire departments to use drones “for specific enumerated purposes in emergency situations.” Usage would have to approved by the city manager, police chief or fire chief.

But two other city bodies, the Peace & Justice Commission and the Police Review Commission, have asked council to declare Berkeley a “no drone zone,” citing concerns related to safety and privacy, among other issues.

The Berkeley City Council will hold a work session April 29 at 5:30 p.m., at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, to weigh both perspectives.

The council initially took up the issue of drones in December 2012 after the Peace & Justice Commission asked council to declare Berkeley a “no drone zone.”

At that time, council members said the city does not have control over its air space, and that drones can be used for legitimate functions, among other comments. They sent back the recommendation to the Peace & Justice, Police Review and Disaster and Fire Safety commissions for further study.

According to reports included in a preliminary agenda packet for the April 29 meeting, the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission voted unanimously — though several members were absent — in January 2013 to recommend that drones be allowed to be used by public safety officials under appropriate circumstances.

The two other commissions — Peace & Justice and Police Review — held a “town hall” meeting in May of last year to collect public feedback about the drone issue. According to the agenda packet, 18 speakers at that meeting “expressed strong opposition to the use of drones in Berkeley, while two expressed willingness to see drones used in emergency situations with appropriate safeguards.”

In addition, “Many speakers urged commissioners to pursue a ‘No Drone Zone’ policy in Berkeley.”

Those two commissions have brought back a recommendation asking council again to adopt a “no drone zone” ordinance based on its discussions last year.

According to the report prepared by the Peace & Justice Commission, several other cities around the nation have banned drones altogether. Staff noted that the commissions also considered the use of drones in emergency situations, but said ultimately that the possibility to abuse the tool, and the potential for other problems to arise from their use, led them to call for a complete ban.

In addition to reports from those three city commissions, a fourth report from the city manager and police chief related to the commission recommendations “regarding the use of unmanned aircraft systems” is also set to be included in the April 29 council packet. It was not posted as part of the preliminary agenda packet, but Police Chief Michael Meehan said it would be available Thursday, April 16, according to the city clerk.

Drones spotted in Berkeley

Drones have come up recently anecdotally in the community, too. Earlier this month, a local resident asked Berkeleyside on Twitter whether anyone else had noticed “what looked like a drone circling Berkeley.”

Some Berkeleyside readers answered on Facebook and on Twitter; one said he had seen a drone at Off the Grid in North Berkeley. One woman said she had seen a drone on Channing Way near Bonar Street. Yet another said he had seen a drone east of campus.

At a recent community meeting, one attendee asked police chief Meehan about drones, and he said the Berkeley Police Department does not have them, has not borrowed them and does not use them at all.

Readers have reported drone research being done on campus as one possibly source, and they are also said to be popular with hobbyists.

Chris Anderson, a Berkeley resident and the CEO of 3D Robotics — a West Berkeley manufacturer of small drones used by hobbyists and others — told Berkeleyside in 2012 that he is “sympathetic to the instincts of the Berkeley initiative” to ban drones, adding that they are “part of a bigger debate on what kind of privacy we should have.”

But he also noted the long history of technologies that were once exclusively used by the military but later developed into consumer uses. He pointed to the Internet and computers as examples, and said drones have been used to help with 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.

“I’d love a little more nuanced view,” he told Berkeleyside previously. “They’re lumping children’s toys with military weaponry.”

Federal and state bodies have also been working to come up with appropriate laws regarding drone usage around the country. A law passed by Congress in February 2012 requires the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft vehicles into the U.S. aviation system by 2015. In May 2012, the FAA issued a regulation allowing public safety organizations to use drones weighing up to 25 pounds without a permit.

As for California, the state Assembly voted in favor of legislation that would require lawmakers to get a warrant to use any drone — except during an emergency — and would also require public agencies to destroy data collected via drone within six months, according to news reports. That legislation has now moved to the Senate.

The Berkeley City Council will hold a work session on drones April 29 at 5:30 p.m., at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. For more background, read the preliminary agenda packet materials here. Read an ACLU report of drone legislation passed by numerous states last year.

Berkeleyside Blotter: Crime in Berkeley, April 3-9 (04.15.14)
Berkeley rejects idea of making city a No Drone Zone (12.19.12)
Berkeley considers becoming a No Drone Zone (12.18.12)
Of course you want to build your own aerial drone (10.12.11)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...