Drone technology in Berkeley may see further study

Advocates calling to make Berkeley a "no drone zone" set up in front of Tuesday night's council meeting to spread the word. Photo: mary mad

Advocates calling to make Berkeley a “no drone zone” set up in front of Tuesday night’s council meeting to spread the word. Photo: mary mad

Tuesday evening, the Berkeley City Council delved into the sticky issue of drone regulation, and plans to take an even deeper look at the related ramifications at some point in the future.

The council held a special work session — with no action planned, and none taken — to hear from three city panels that considered drone technology after local officials asked them to offer feedback on it in late 2012.

Two of those bodies came out in support of making Berkeley a “no drone zone,” while the third said drones should be available for the city to use in case of emergency with appropriate oversight.

More than a dozen members of the public, representing themselves and a variety of organizations, spoke out against drones Tuesday night, citing concerns about privacy, surveillance and potential weaponization. Many of them said they would like to see Berkeley ban drones altogether. Several others, however, described to council various practical, non-military applications for drones that have increased public safety, and asked council not to issue a blanket ban.

A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California spoke about the “grave civil liberties concerns” and the need for extensive regulation of drone technology, while others highlighted fears about the potential for dangerous crashes.

Matthew Kellegrew, a representative from the Massachusetts-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said it would be “imperative” to have “comprehensives legislature at the city level” due to the “glacial pace” of federal regulations and their inability to keep up with technology.

“Rules must be put in place to ensure we’re not turned into even more of a surveillance society,” added Nancy Mancias, a San Francisco-based national organizer for Code Pink. “We have seen firsthand the use of drones abroad, and we would hate to see something like that happen here in the homeland.”

A closer look at the "no drone zone" display set up outside Tuesday night's Berkeley City Council meeting. Photo: David Colburn

A closer look at the “no drone zone” display set up outside Tuesday night’s Berkeley City Council meeting. Photo: David Colburn

But several advocates of the technology told council that, though drone technology originated in the military world, a range of beneficial civilian applications are now in effect or being studied, from land management to search-and-rescue operations.

Kene Akametalu, who works in a research lab at UC Berkeley, told council that his group is studying technology for both manned and unmanned vehicles to create better safety systems and increase their ability to avoid collisions.

“Banning drones in Berkeley would constrain our research,” he said. “It would make Berkeley less attractive to world-class researchers and give an advantage to our competitors.”

Another member of the public, who declined to give his name, said he was a recent graduate of Cal who has studied drone technology.

“It’s important to understand the size and scope of these aircraft,” he said, noting that many of them are quite small, made of foam, weigh just a few pounds and are designed to fly for 15 minutes or less. “There are a lot of applications where they’re useful, and not too dangerous.”

Councilman Gordon Wozniak added that drones have been used to monitor for gas leaks or check for cracks in wind turbines, and have been used in other places “where it’s dangerous to send an individual.”

Advocates for drones say there are many potential social benefits to their study and use. Photo: Eugene Kim

Advocates for drones say there are many potential social benefits to their study and use. Photo: Eugene Kim (Creative Commons)

One issue that came to the forefront, as council heard from the public, revolved around how to find a way to protect the private, potentially appropriate, use of drones — for scientific research or artistic purposes, for example — while making sure proper regulations are in place to govern any law enforcement use of the technology.

Mayor Tom Bates said he does not see the City Council ever giving drones to police in Berkeley. Other council members said they would also never want to see weaponized drones in the city. But several members of council said it would be important, going forward, to try to find ways to protect private, beneficial uses.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he believes there could be beneficial uses of drones by the city’s first responders. And he added that it will be important to figure out whether it’s even possible for the council to develop good protocols and guidelines for drones that would protect civil liberties: “If we can’t do that, then I don’t think we can go forward.”

Councilman Max Anderson called for a broader discussion to “talk about all the dimensions of the possible use of these things. And maybe we’ll get a fuller, more fleshed-out view of what our civic responsibilities are.”

He said the city would be well-served to bring in experts to discuss everything from the ethical implications to the details and applications of drone technology to make sure the whole community has a “comprehensive understanding” of the issue. Anderson also said he was very concerned about the misuse of the technology, and did want to see politics or economics hampering regulatory oversight.

Michael Sherman, Police Review Commission chairman, said it would be important for the city to continue to look at the issue, and that he appreciated the various views he heard during the special session.

“I’m not going to deny that there can be positive uses of drones,” he told the council. “The issue is how do we balance that against the Fourth Amendment.”

Bates referred the drone issue to the city’s agenda committee to look into scheduling a future session to explore how other cities have balanced law enforcement regulations with private use of drones, as well as the protection of privacy and other civil liberties.

“Maybe there’s no way to control the privacy issues,” Bates said, “but I think it’s worth trying for.”

Watch the special session here on video

Related:
Drone battle to come before Berkeley City Council (04.16.14)
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)

Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • Why The Uproar?

    When we consider this issue, we must first understand what exactly a “drone” is.

    drone 1 (drōn)
    n.
    1.
    A male bee, especially a honeybee, that is characteristically
    stingless, performs no work, and produces no honey. Its only function is
    to mate with the queen bee.
    2. An idle person who lives off others; a loafer.
    3. A person who does tedious or menial work; a drudge: “undervalued drones who labored in obscurity” (Caroline Bates).
    4. A pilotless aircraft operated by remote control.

    So, a “drone” is not something that “originated in the military world” but is simply any pilotless aircraft operated by remote control. By that definition any toy airplane sold at Toys-R-Us would qualify. You can even buy remote control helicopters that fit in the palm of your hand at practically any toy store in America.

    So what’s all the uproar about the city wanting to buy some toy helicopters?

  • Bill N

    I think you understate the possibilities, but, that said, I think Max Anderson got it right when he said “the whole community has a “comprehensive understanding” of the issue. Whether there is ever going to be truly community understanding and not a lot of community grandstanding is another matter.

  • TheSpinZone

    Very nice spin. Well done.

  • Why The Uproar?

    Do we really need experts to tell us what remote controlled helicopters are? You can buy one for $300 that you control with your iPhone in the Apple store if you want to play around with one.

    http://store.apple.com/us/product/H8859ZM/A/parrot-ardrone-20

    Is there any compelling reason why the city or police should not be able to own something that anyone can go buy at a store right now?

  • Why The Uproar?

    No spin, just facts. Remote controlled aircraft are not military by nature or design. The technology started as a hobbyist creation and “drones” have been around in one form or another since the 1920s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio-controlled_aircraft

  • John Freeman

    Right. What’s changed is their expense (plummeting), the sophistication of their control systems (through the roof), the more common integration of them with surveillance technology, the discovery and development of miilitary-style applications enabled by these other changes, and the development of an industry and lobbyist push to try to deploy civil-rights challenging applications at the municipal level, in part by appealing to fear and unfounded ridicule like what you’re cooking up.

    Other than that, yeah, it’s just like the 1920s.

  • Why The Uproar?

    John Freeman, your complaint is about some uses and technologies associated with drones. We could separately debate how valid such complaints are (I think it’s a mix). Nevermind that, though. Let’s stipulate that some uses and technologies are a problem.

    How do you get from that to the conclusion that therefore the city or police must never be allowed to posses drones of any sort? Surely any such problems as you mention can be addressed in many less extreme ways.

  • John Freeman

    How do you get from that to the conclusion that therefore the city or police must never be allowed to posses drones of any sort?

    The potential of drones for abuse is not enough in and of itself to conclude that the police shouldn’t have them. I don’t think anyone is claiming otherwise.

    Surely any such problems as you mention can be addressed in many less extreme ways.

    I get it. You’re parroting back my critique of people who want to wipe People’s Park off the map.

    The analogy isn’t very good, though. For example, there is nothing particularly “extreme” about not approving a police purchase of drones.

  • Why The Uproar?

    The potential of drones for abuse is not enough in and of itself to
    conclude that the police shouldn’t have them. I don’t think anyone is
    claiming otherwise.

    But then moments later you say:

    …there is nothing particularly “extreme” about not approving a police purchase of drones.

    Which indicates that you think the police should not be allowed to purchase drones.

    So if you do not think the potential for abuse is significant enough of a reason to ban the police from using a remote controlled helicopter, what other reason do you think is significant enough to ban the police from using one?

  • John Freeman

    So if you do not think the potential for abuse is significant enough of a
    reason to ban the police from using a remote controlled helicopter,
    what other reason do you think is significant enough to ban the police
    from using one?

    The potential for abuse of drone is not in and of itself enough reason to conclude that the police shouldn’t have them. That police have not convincingly demonstrated that they will refrain from and prevent abuse is.

  • Why The Uproar?

    So in essence you are asking our police, fire department, and emergency services to prove a negative. They must first prove that they won’t abuse something they don’t have before you think they should be allowed to have it.

    Somehow that doesn’t seem very fair to me.

  • John Freeman

    So in essence you are asking our police, fire department, and emergency services to prove a negative.

    I would be satisfied with a convincing array of public oversight mechanisms with enough teeth to truly investigate and intervene.

    I do understand that some people in contrast are authoritarians who prefer not to much question or challenge what police do. I would only note that, historically, societies in which such views become dominant don’t have a very good track record.

    Let me take this opportunity to ask you a question. Have you any thoughts on the general question of community self-policing? To me it seems like a potentially good approach although certainly there is a risk of it devolving into competing mobs. The US’ limited experience with it is pretty grim with examples like the state swiftly imposing gun control to outlaw the Black Panther efforts (and the Panthers crumbling into a mess under pressure) or the periodically bloody clashes between the federal government and “militia” wing-nuttery. In spite of those bad experiences I wonder what is possible in this area.

  • Why The Uproar?

    I would be satisfied with a convincing array of public oversight
    mechanisms with enough teeth to truly investigate and intervene.

    That sounds fairly reasonable to me. Perhaps you and others who feel that the police and/or emergency services could benefit from remote controlled camera platforms could work together to generate a list of suggested oversight mechanisms.

    Unfortunately some citizens are already loudly demanding that the entire city of Berkeley be made into a “No Drone Zone” before we’ve even had any details about who in Berkeley’s city government wants them, what they would use them for, and what kind of system of checks and balances they propose to prevent abuse.

    http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2013-05-13/article/41063?headline=Statement-in-Support-of-a-Citywide-No-Drone-Zone—By-Gar-Smith-Environmentalists-Against-War-www.envirosagainstwar.org-

    I do understand that some people in contrast are authoritarians who prefer not to much question or challenge what police do.

    Who, exactly, are you referring to? Since no one in the discussion about the subject in Berkeley has suggested allowing the police or city to have access to anything they want without any questions, is this simply an attempt to slander anyone who is anything less than completely obstructionist?

    Have you any thoughts on the general question of community self-policing?

    I dislike the idea of self policing for some of the reasons you listed, as well as because I dislike the notion of privatizing public services and would prefer for authority over & access to public surveillance to be centralized and only accessible to those who have been properly trained and who are working under a system of accountability and oversight.

  • batardo

    > Is there any compelling reason why the city or police should

    > not be able
    to own something that anyone can go buy at a store right now?

    Sure, there are plenty of available technologies that we don’t want the government to use for policing. Bull whips for instance, maybe chainsaws, millimeter wave heat ray weapons, and plenty more. Tasers come to mind as well.

    The problem of course is not the technology itself, but the fact that it facilitates behavior that either contradicts the law or is on the fuzzy margins where the law doesn’t clearly articulate the permissible boundaries.

    In these cases we say, “Find another way”.

  • guest

    John, what is your biggest concern? Police use of drones? Your nosy neighbor?

  • John Freeman

    John, what is your biggest concern?

    I don’t view this as a negotiation so I have no answer for that question.

  • Herself

    If we start getting drones in Berkeley, I’m going to buy a .22 shotgun and spend lots of time practicing by shooting skeet. Liberal hippie freaks can be gun owners, too.

  • Why The Uproar?

    Sure, there are plenty of available technologies that we don’t want the
    government to use for policing. Bull whips for instance, maybe
    chainsaws, millimeter wave heat ray weapons, and plenty more.

    Why not just go full tilt with your hyperbole and try to imply that remote controlled helicopters are like atom bombs or Nazi gas chambers? Limiting yourself to chainsaws and death rays seems so half-assed.

    Tasers come to mind as well.

    Not for most people, who realize that tasers are a valuable tool for both civilian defense and as an alternative to batons, pepper spray or firearms for the police. Taser use by law enforcement is only an issue in Berkeley because of a loud anti-police minority who seem to want to disarm the police force.

    The problem of course is not the technology itself, but the fact that it facilitates behavior that either contradicts the law or is on the fuzzy margins where the law doesn’t clearly articulate the permissible
    boundaries.

    Such as…?