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)

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