Will drones fly the county skies? | September 25, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - September 25, 2013

Will drones fly the county skies?

by Dave Boyce

There may be a time when a small airborne mechanical drone operated by a law enforcement agency flies above the heads of San Mateo County residents, but that time is not now and not in the near future, according to Mike Sena, a captain in the county Sheriff's Office and the director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC).

Public skepticism and unresolved legal issues are keeping these small unmanned aerial vehicles on the back burner, at best, Mr. Sena said. In April 2013, officials in Alameda County canceled plans for a drone after a public outcry — an outcry that led the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office across the bay to abandon its own request for homeland-security funds to purchase a drone, which it had hoped to make available to emergency responders.

The drones in question are not on the scale of the Predator and Reaper aircraft used by the military, but square spider-like things measuring about 2 feet on a side with rotors at each corner, similar to models sold by Sharper Image, Mr. Sena said. In explaining its reason for wanting a drone, the county didn't talk about using it as a surveillance tool. But for emergency responders, a drone could have an important and practical role, Mr. Sena said.

If someone is stuck on a cliff, a drone can hover and provide a close-up view of the situation. If there's fog, a drone can hover below it and would not interfere in a complicated airspace. A drone is also significantly less expensive than a helicopter to buy and operate — important considerations for cash-strapped agencies, Mr. Sena said.

Firefighters could have used a drone in San Bruno in 2010 when a gas pipeline exploded. Emergency crews did have an overhead view, but only because a firefighter owned a TV streaming device and tapped into a live feed from a news-helicopter.

But public support for a drone is not there. "We saw that the (opinion) for the utilizing of drones domestically is not really settled, so we decided not to pursue it," Sheriff Greg Munks said in April. "We're just going to stand down."

The county's position has not changed in the interim, Undersheriff Carlos Bolanos told the Almanac recently.

Agencies continue to explore the topic, however. The discussion tends to focus on capabilities, Mr. Sena said, given the small size and limited battery-powered flight time. In any case, Mr. Sena added, questions around the storage and use of drone-acquired data have not yet been answered to the satisfaction of the courts.

While individual privacy rights are diminished in public places, the law is not settled on places not normally visible to the public that can be seen from above, Mr. Sena said.

In San Mateo County, a drone would be available only to officers trained to use it, Sheriff Munks said. A warrant would be necessary in all cases except search-and-rescue incidents or situations involving a SWAT team, he said. When not in use, it would be locked in a warehouse along with other specialized equipment, such as jet skis, he said.

This county would not have to own a drone to deploy one, however. There is a spirit and an expectation of sharing among Bay Area agencies involved with community security, Mr. Sena said.

Mr. Sena and Mr. Bolanos reside in San Mateo County. Their views about unmanned vehicles in the sky above their families? "The development and policies and protection of privacy and civil liberties and civil rights are always the concern of everyone in the public," Mr. Sena said. "Coming from that citizen's mindset, rescues need to be made. The deployment of that technology to locate my (lost or injured) relative is something that I'd want law enforcement to have."

Mr. Bolanos struck a similar tone. "It depends on what the purpose (of the drone) is," he said. "Things have changed in our country since (September 11, 2001). We need to strike a balance between us feeling secure, safe, and that we still have our civil liberties. I don't think we can go one way or the other."

Will the Bay Area have drones in five years? "To tell you the truth, I don't know," Mr. Sena said. "The bigger question is, how will these devices be used?" Policy decisions will be necessary, as will coordination with interest groups and the communities involved. "Nobody's working on it," he added.


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