In a pitch by leaders in three Menlo Park city departments – police, public works and community development – to explore a possible drone program in the city, each laid out potentially transformative ways that drones could help improve safety and solve problems in day-to-day working situations.
The staff members were presenting their case to the Menlo Park City Council during a study session on the topic held Dec. 10. The council expressed openness to the possibility while voicing significant concerns about unanswered civil rights questions that a citywide drone program could raise.
Brian Henry, assistant public works director, said that his department could benefit from drones by using them for facilities inspections, especially on roofs. For instance, he explained, when employees inspect and maintain solar panels, roof tiles can crack under their weight.
Drones could also be used to inspect confined spaces where people don't fit; to check in on parks to ensure that contractors complete assigned work; to inspect tree canopies to monitor their health; or to inspect under bridges.
In general, getting city workers and contractors off of ladders and lifts, he noted, would improve safety.
Drones could benefit the community development department in performing similar tasks, said Chuck Andrews, assistant community development director in the building division. He added that his department could use drones to speed up inspections and improve safety during inspections of potentially unsafe structures – for example, at a home damaged by a fallen tree when it's not clear how structurally sound the dwelling is.
It could also enable staff to do some inspections without relying on contractors' equipment as it currently does when doing inspections at construction sites.
As for the police department, Sgt. Aaron Dixon emphasized that the drones are, essentially, a "camera on a stick" and can offer significant enhancements to officers seeking critical information about their surroundings during crime and emergency situations.
Aerial cameras on a drone can capture the scene of a traffic accident far faster than officers standing on the ground with cameras, who often measure distances by hand with tape measures, he explained. The details at the scene of a collision that would typically shut down a roadway for three hours while officers collect data could be captured in about a half-hour with a drone, he said.
Drones can also be equipped with heat-seeking equipment, which has been used for finding missing people. Dixon cited a February incident in which Fremont police used drone technology to find a deaf teenager who had run away from school and was found hiding in the bushes in the dark.
Drone technology can also help police figure out how to better position themselves for safety if an armed person is in hiding, he added.
The video files recorded by drones would be subject to public record requests, though Dixon confirmed that the department would have the tools to redact records in order not to reveal footage about minors or other people incidentally captured when a drone is used, he said.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District already has a drone program, as do the nearby cities of Mountain View and Fremont. Dixon said that the program would comply with best practices recommended by the ACLU.
Privacy and other concerns
But with airborne cameras and video recording equipment, personal privacy can easily be violated, especially because the higher a drone goes, the more information it can capture. What's to prevent footage of people in their backyard or other private spaces from winding up in a police video record somewhere? That's an uneasy question some members of the public and council members said they want answered.
Several attendees of the discussion raised further concerns with the proposal. Pam Jones noted that cities with drone programs are typically far larger than Menlo Park and pushed for more public outreach, as well as public notification when drones are used.
Adina Levin, a member of the city's Complete Streets Commission, said she had "significant civil liberty concerns," such as what might happen if a resident calls the police about a "suspicious person" who is in fact just an African American walking down the street and a drone becomes a surveillance tool. She suggested that experts be brought in to make sure that fair policies are in place to protect privacy.
Smitha Gundavajhala, program coordinator at the Youth Leadership Institute in San Mateo, urged the council to support strong penalties in cases of abuse to deter improper invasions of privacy or civil liberty violations with the use of drones.
"With great power comes great responsibility," she said.
Generally, council members were open to the idea of some level of drone use in the city, though these positions varied. Councilwoman Betsy Nash and Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor said they were not supportive of using drones for policing, but did support drones' use for public works and community development purposes.
"For me, the use cases are great. I just want to have discussion about what the guard rails are," said Mayor Ray Mueller, who asked that city staff come back with a drone program expert and clearer policies on acceptable uses of the drones and relevant software applications, as well as more information about how many human-hours of work that drone use could save.
Councilman Drew Combs added that he was "supportive of moving to the next step." And Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said she'd like to see more details about privacy and best practices, but noted, "I think we should be able to work out the details."