Berkeley considers becoming a No Drone Zone

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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  • serkes

    “Hobbyist use is exempted “as long as those devices are not equipped with any kind of camera or audio surveillance equipment.”

    What’s the policy for “kites, helium balloons, and long poles”?


  • This proposal is silly, I would love to be able to take photos from a small personal drone. Also what about kites with cameras? Is the city planning to ban those. According to the article the city doesn’t even have the authority to regulate air space.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Stupid proposal from a commission that should be decommissioned.

    I’d like to use a small personal photo drone too.

    Could we please stop wasting council time on this stuff and focus on getting our financial house in order? What about those unfunded liabilities?

  • AlanTobey

    While we’re at it, let’s be sure to also ban those Google drivearound Street View cameras, and — just to be thorough — prohibit all camera-equipped satellites from passing over.

    Just a would-be subclause 147 of the master Berkeley Laughing Stock ordinance. I believe there’s a whole major section for this in the Berkeley Municipal Code.

  • Nameless

    I’ve seen some hobby drones that were uncontrollable. Up to 25 pounds? Wow.

  • bgal4

    Clearly none of the commissioner has been captive inside their own homes while the police search for hours for a dangerous criminal hiding in our yards and garages, moving over fences and rooftops. The police are denied a canine unit, no helicopters, we request helicoptor assistance from CHP and Oakland, and now an affordable tool that could relieve the pressure of this tense searches and the Peace and Freedom commission knows best. How many people know that on Sunday 11 pm residents in my area counted 7 gunshots.

    Chip Johnson said it right in the Chron, send the drones over the border to help OPD. The problem is for us in south Berkeley, we have more in common with Oakland residents that our Berkeley betters.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Paranoid? what do you have to hide? i say bring them here if there is data that proves it makes cities safer I’m all for it. Maybe the big brother effect will stop criminals in their tracks if they know the crime is being video taped.

  • EBGuy

    — Nonsensical rant ON —
    You’d think they’d do something that makes sense, like banning news helicopters and requiring news gathering organizations to use UAV’s that meet certain noise thresholds.
    — Nonsensical rant OFF —
    In all seriousness, though, because commercial use is banned, there is a huge niche that can be filled by citizen journalists operating hobbyist drones. The privacy issues, though, are very real. Let’s see what Michael Pollan is barbequing today…

  • AlanTobey

    We’ll just have to extend our god-given second amendment rights to include the right to bear personal anti-drone missiles to protect our sacred private low-level airspace. Should be entertaining, when we’re not ducking and covering.

  • The 25 pounds is for drones used by public safety agencies. I don’t think hobbyist drones get anywhere near that weight yet.

  • Guest

    UC Berkeley Engineering School has a long standing drone research program

  • MarcusHart

    I dislike paranoia when I see it from conservatives saying, “Obama’s gonna confiscate our guns!” and “The UN is gonna force us all to live in skyscrapers and walk to work!”

    I dislike paranoia just as much coming from my neighbors worrying that the cops are going to start video taping their BBQs, when it could have real crime-fighting benefits.

    I ask that we please not confuse the real concern regarding the Obama administration drone policy with unfounded concerns about using remote-controlled helicopters to find criminals. The Obama administration drone policy is bad because it kills innocent people. The drones that may or may not be used in Berkeley will not be shooting missiles, for one thing. Nor will they be shooting guns, for that matter.

    I’m happy to hear actual concerns about using drones (honestly, I don’t think we should be calling them drones, it just confuses things) as part of law enforcement, but all I’ve heard so far is how they will be used to video tape your backyard.

  • serkes

    In the party scene in “Amadeus” Mozart says “penalty, I must have a penalty”

    Might I suggest that the penalty for first use of a camera on a hobby drone be a sentence to serve one year on the Peace & Freedom Commission. Penalty for 2nd use of a camera on a drone be a two year sentence … and stop me before I drone on.


  • The Sharkey

    Would a “no drone zone” measure mean that Worthington wouldn’t be allowed to speak during Council meetings?

  • The Sharkey

    Agreed completely about the terminology.

    These are essentially toy helicopters with webcams, not the kind of armed military airplanes that our government uses to murder American citizens and militants who are on “the wrong side” in the Middle East.

  • y_p_w

    City ordinances don’t apply on UC property.

  • Chris

    What would it take to get rid of the PJC? Is it up to the city council or is a ballot measure sufficient?

  • AlanTobey

    From The Sideshow blog today, just to show where the field is going (beyond the power of an ordinance to ban):

    The Air Force has spent more than $1 million to help develop a small and versatile robot dragonfly. But in a move to raise funds for the Dragonfly, the developers are offering the public the chance to own their own flying robot Dragonfly for $119.
    “This means you can do amazing aerial photography, spy on people, secure your house or use it as the next-gen gaming platform,” says Emanuel Jones, co-founder of TechJect, in a promotional video for the project on the Indiegogo website. . . .
    They say the current prototype weighs less than an ounce, or the weight of one AA battery. And if you believe the project’s developers, it offers several more practical uses than your typical “one-trick pony” aerial drone, including a smaller frame and more powerful battery life.
    “This could be the next generation in spy tools. Even James Bond would want one of these,”

  • Howie Mencken

    “When Going Gets Trivial, the Trivial Get Going!”

    Thanks ‘The Peace and Justice Commission’, for another nail in city’s cred coffin.

  • Julie

    You certainly have an obsession with Kriss, who works very hard for this city in many excellent ways. He is not even part of this thread. I’m beginning to wonder if, oh perish the thought! :))

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    “Berkeley considers becoming a No Drone Zone” NO title of article should read “idiot Berkeley leaders consider making Berkeley a laughing stock once more. Just as always Berkeley or the people of Berkeley have no real say in what happens around here!

  • Howie Mencken

    Julie…you may be able to perish the thought, but I can’t. Worthington’s presence on Berkeley’s political scene is most stultifying influence we suffer.

  • Howie Mencken

    3rdGen…Right On! Berkeley’s “Commissions” are our bumper sticker, piercing, tat voices. Let’s dump ’em and say what we really think.

  • Bill N

    And how do they propose to enforce this “idea?” Perhaps with a Peace and Justice drone that can shoot down other drones or force them down into the park behind city hall.

  • The Sharkey

    Kriss is still on the Council, right?
    This article is still about the Council considering a proposal, right?
    Kriss still has a history of trying to filibuster Council votes, right?

    It sort of kills the joke if you make me use footnotes and explain it all in detail.

  • Howie Mencken

    Ooops! I forgot the ‘Blue Rinse Brigade’!

  • guest

    No Sharkey. you are obsessed. Just own up.

  • guest

    >implying that drones will only ever be used to catch violent criminals, and never to spy on citizens
    Because the US government is so very, very trustworthy.

  • Berkeley Resident

    My imagination seems to be in flight. I hear the strains of “Up in the Air Junior Birdman” from way, way a long time ago in childhood. Could the Flying Robot Dragonfly, from Alan’s post, be offered by cereal companies upon the gathering of 20 boxtops? Think of the possibilities. It could also be synced to your iPhone or Kindle or Nook, or ???. Look to the stars, and the drones. Birds beware.

  • guest

    So very tired of Berkeley paranoia…

  • serkes

    How B******** (redacted) can you be?