Capitol Alert

As drone use spreads, California lawmakers push for control

Timothy Pantle operates a remote-controlled helicopter equipped with a high-definition video camera at a park in Fair Oaks. Several bills to regulate drones’ use are pending in the state Legislature.
Timothy Pantle operates a remote-controlled helicopter equipped with a high-definition video camera at a park in Fair Oaks. Several bills to regulate drones’ use are pending in the state Legislature. Sacramento Bee file

One proposed law would prohibit drones from flying above schools, prompted by concerns that kidnappers or child molesters could obtain images of students.

Another would bar their use above prisons, responding to the possibility that they could deliver contraband to inmates.

A third would prohibit their use lower than 350 feet above private property without permission, making sure neighbors couldn’t spy on one another.

As drones rapidly become more prevalent, efforts intended to regulate their use are also multiplying.

“The technology has gotten ahead of the law,” said Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, the author of several drone-regulation bills pending in the California Legislature. “I’m not anti-drone. I just want to make sure people’s privacy is protected, that public safety is protected.”

The legislation comes as drone use spreads both commercially and recreationally.

In April, the Federal Aviation Administration granted Amazon authorization to test drones outdoors for its yet-to-be-launched Prime Air service, which hopes to use drones to deliver products to a customer’s doorstep within 30 minutes of an online order.

“You are looking at the potential use of drones for commercial package delivery, which means reduced congestion, better environmental impact, quicker turnaround time,” said John Doherty, vice president of state policy and general counsel for Technet, a technology business association whose members include Amazon, Google and Apple.

The aircraft have also become widely available to hobbyists. Once large pieces of primarily military technology, drones now are shrinking, making them accessible to the public, said Bruce Parks, treasurer of the Silicon Valley branch of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group promoting drone technology.

1,356Commercial authorizations for drones issued by the FAA since July 2014

In recent years, the aircraft have become popular, personal toys. Any member of the public can strap a Go-Pro camera on the device to take aerial photographs. A hobby drone equipped with its own camera sells for as little as $45 on Amazon.

But as they have proliferated, they have piqued lawmakers’ concerns.

Encounters with other aircraft are on the rise. According to the FAA, pilot reports of drone sightings rose from 238 in all of 2014 to over 650 through Aug. 9 this year. Earlier this month, an ambulance helicopter taking someone to the hospital in Fresno nearly collided with a drone midair.

This summer, state fire officials have urged the public not to fly drones near wildfires, a practice they said could distract emergency responders or cause collisions with firefighting helicopters. On several occasions across California this year, as a hot and dry fire season devastates parts of the state, drone sightings have caused firefighters to halt their operations.

Gaines has authored two pending bills to address the problem – one to increase fines on drone operators who interfere with firefighters, and another to protect from liability any emergency responders who damage drones.

Federal regulations require hobbyist drones to steer clear of manned aircraft but otherwise defer to a “community-based set of safety guidelines” developed by organizations such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which says drones should fly under 400 feet and should not fly above unprotected people or vehicles. The FAA can fine drone operators thousands of dollars for posing “a hazard to a manned aircraft or people or property on the ground.”

But Gaines says more needs to be done, including specifically prohibiting their use above schools and prisons. Last week in Maryland, two men were arrested outside a prison, allegedly trying to use a drone to deliver drugs and pornography inside.

Others say drones pose a significant privacy challenge, as operators can use them to take photos or recordings of people without their permission.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is carrying Senate Bill 142, which requires drones to be at least 350 feet in the air when flying above private property. The bill has passed both houses and is awaiting consideration by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Her bill would not restrict flying over public roads and land, but Jackson said she also questions whether drones should be allowed over state parks and beaches. Last summer the National Park Service banned the aircraft from all national parks, citing noise pollution and wildlife disturbances.

In general we prefer and think it’s better to go after what is the drone being used for, rather than just prohibiting drones from being somewhere.

John Doherty, vice president of state policy and general counsel for Technet, a technology business association

The various bills have drawn the ire of members of the industry, who argue that regulation would hinder technological development.

“Any kind of regulation in that arena at this point in time will in fact impede development because the industry itself is trying to solve the problem,” Parks said.

Parks said companies can develop “geo-fences” to curb where drones can fly, potentially allowing for no-fly zones to be technologically imposed over schools, prisons or firefighting areas. Developers can also create computer chips that identify the operator of an unknown drone, he said.

Some legislators have expressed concern as well. During debate over Jackson’s bill last week, Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, said the bill would stifle industry creativity and that legislators should revisit the issue after the budding technology gets its chance to “mature.”

One group weary of regulation attempts is Technet, which opposes Jackson’s privacy bill because of its blanket ban on drones flying in certain spaces.

“(The bill says) if you fly below 350 feet you’ve broken the law,” Doherty said. “There’s no exemption for incidental or nominal or accidental drops below that.”

He said regulations should focus narrowly, prohibiting inappropriate uses – hovering for a long time above private property, taking pictures without someone’s permission or dropping contraband over a prison yard. Technet has not taken a stance on Gaines’ school and prison bills.

“In general we prefer and think it’s better to go after what is the drone being used for, rather than just prohibiting drones from being somewhere,” Doherty said.

While Gaines and Jackson are adamant that regulation is needed, they acknowledged the many ways government agencies could use drones for public benefit.

At a legislative hearing last week, emergency officials testified that drones could be used to search for missing people in hard-to-reach places or airdrop medication to someone who is stranded. When controlled by officials, they could even be used to help fight fires, Jackson said.

“If they’re working in a coordinated fashion, there is tremendous opportunity with drones to really be part of the solution,” she said.

Doherty said local governments or utility companies could use drones to inspect electrical wires or hard-to-access infrastructure. But he said restricting the spaces where drones can fly would restrict those opportunities.

“If you’re making it more difficult to deploy drones for those beneficial uses, they’re less likely to get developed and adapted,” he said.

Jeanne Kuang: 916-321-1188, @jeannekuang

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