Drone battle to come before Berkeley City Council

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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  • Bill N

    I would like to know how much authority Berkeley REALLY has in regulating airspace over the city (I note the FAA regulation). Do they really have any authority or, as I cynically could say, is this just another exercise in futility and talking to ourselves?

  • I think drones should be banned everywhere they aren’t going to be used for anything but terror in the future if we don’t go at the issue head on now

  • batardo

    Time to mount commercial confetti/streamer cannons on your roof gutters, should be an effective countermeasure.

  • TN

    What’s the definition of “drone?”

    I assume that drones are definitively different from radio controlled planes and helicopters. Operating these aircraft have been long time recreations and occasionally useful tools in some applications. What does a radio controlled plane need to have in addition that makes it a “drone?”

  • testit

    Berkeley has no ability to regulate airspace for aviation purposes. Many cities have tried to regulate their airspace for decades and always fail. Think about how difficult it would be for a pilot to operate an airplane flying across the country if there were different regulations in every jurisdiction that was overflown?
    The same is true for interstate waterways and right-of-ways owned by the federal government (think train tracks and the SF Bay) where no city, even Berkeley, can say what a train is permitted to do on the train rails passing through Berkeley or what boats can do in the the SF Bay (or sea planes for that matter).

  • testit

    “aren’t going to be used for anything but terror” is an extreme, and wholly unjustified statement. In fact, they have been used for many, many purposes so far, and none of them are terror related (unless you consider the military’s use to be terror and in no likely scenario is there any chance that the military will stop using drones).

    It’s difficult to name a technology that can’t be used for both good and bad purposes.
    The fact is that you can buy a kit to make drones, and you can make them out of parts that have nothing to do with being a drone. People already know how to make them, with or without a kit, and will build them whether they are legal or not, especially someone with an intention of terror.

    The best source of advanced military grade drones will be the ones that the military lost in action.

    So far the NRA has not pushed to allow drones to have guns but that can’t be too far away.

  • testit

    The FAA describes a drone as: “A device used or intended to be used for flight in the air that has no on-board pilot. This device excludes missiles, weapons, or exploding warheads, but includes all classes of airplanes, helicopters, airships, and powered-lift aircraft without an on-board pilot.“

    So, no difference.

  • Bill N

    But, if the NRA has its way we could shoot them down.

  • Mbfarrel

    While we’re hating on drones, check out this abuse of airspace:


  • UAV

    Cool-so the UAV (aka “Drone”) could be linked to the Shotspotter system. From the Shotspotter, the UAV could get the coordinates of the shot and fly directly to the spot within minutes if not seconds. The UAV could film and track the scene, prior to police arriving by vehicle, potentially capturing the direction and description of escaping shooters, whether on foot or vehicle. That information could be used to track and capture those that shoot people on our streets. That is just one use…..

  • Chris J

    If the guvamint can have drones, fine. We should, too. The people. Now with everyone having a smart phone, everyone can record each other. I think drones are neat. I’d like one.

  • Alina

    Man I wish I had taken a picture of the one we saw at off-the-grid. It looked nothing like the copter drones I’d seen before. But more like a mini-glider or the traditional shape of military drones. It didn’t bother me any. I thought it was kinda cool.

  • Tasersaurus

    When I saw the title of this article, I thought, “oh cool, there will be a drone battle in front of the council dais.”

  • CelloVerp

    Seriously. For every negative abuse of a remote-controlled aircraft, there’s a positive, innovative use of it, like this. Getting great footage of Cal games comes to mind as another, in addition to things like the deforestation surveying being developed by several folks at Cal.

  • guest
  • guest

    Same thing different, “scary” name to fool the plebs into thinking it’s something special and new.

  • Name

    I guess this will mean an end to the Berkeley Kite Festival.


  • Completely_Serious

    What if we made Berkeley a “No Peace & Justice Commission and No Police Review Commission Zone,” citing concerns related to safety and privacy, among other issues?

    I’m nostalgic for dogs in helicopters.

  • Tasersaurus

    Dogs with tasers riding on drones firing bond money into the achievement gap.

  • guest

    I have been at several bicycle races where go pro cameras on quad copters were used to make cool videos of the racing. As those were public event/public space uses, I did not feel my privacy was invaded in any way. The video added to the fun of the event. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZs0mTiUBlM

  • guest

    I am against any use of drones with weapons mounted, or drones used as weapons. I would be very interested in reading from a criminologist or public health scientist/policing specialist about the potential of drones and robots to reduce violence in policing. In situations where the police are unsure about the existence and location of shooters, it could be much safer to use quad copters, or robots that can search houses, instead of sending in human beings to locate suspects, or check for bombs. By reducing the exposure of police to danger, it seems like we could reduce the number of people who end up being hurt in interactions with the police. I would also be interested in drones and robots that could be used to search burning buildings, or for wild-land searches. In some cases there are fires that prevent or delay searching for victims because of danger to firefighters.

  • Angry Little Biff

    I just saw two today that had the following profile.
    What the hell is going on here?