Menlo Park Police Chief Dave Bertini told The Almanac Sept. 3 that he is asking the City Council to consider holding a study session, likely sometime in November, to discuss the possibility of starting a drone program to support police work as well as work in other city departments.
The same day, the Mountain View City Council passed a policy that will permit the launch of a program to use unmanned aircraft systems — also known as drones — to aid the work of the police, fire and public works departments.
In Mountain View, on the police front, drones might be used to look for missing people; provide situational awareness by getting an aerial point of view on a situation; respond to suspected explosive devices or dangerous scenes; and to document a crime or collision scene.
To support firefighting agencies, drones might be used to document or monitor a scene, or manage hazardous material. For the public works department, drones could be used for roof, gutter or tree canopy inspections, road and construction project oversight, and to do environmental assessments, according to the Mountain View policy.
As far as Menlo Park's plans go, Bertini said, "We are in the very, very initial stages of looking at what Mountain View did."
He later added that he hopes drones would be used by other city departments such as public works, transportation, community development, and the community services departments. "Our intention is to have multiple trained and certified pilots from each one of these departments," he later clarified.
The department will have to address concerns about privacy, as well as acquire special authority from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for such a program to move forward, Bertini noted.
The FAA can permit public safety officers to use drones in areas where the public cannot, he added.
In August 2016, the Menlo Park City Council banned the recreational use of drones — along with remote-controlled model airplanes — at city parks. The ban was passed partly because the city is within 5 miles of two airports, in San Carlos and Palo Alto.
Even while recreational drone use has been cut in Menlo Park, use of drones by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has only expanded in the past several years. In May 2016, it was the first fire agency in the state to receive approval from the FAA to operate drones, and it has had a drone crew since 2014.
The district's drones have been used to document fire damage in the aftermath of the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa in 2017 and the Carr Fire near Redding in 2018.
Drone programs across California are proliferating.
Fremont has been using drones for its police and fire departments since 2017. In February, the Fremont Police Department reported using a drone equipped with thermal imaging technology to find a student reported missing from the California School for the Deaf. The drone helped find the student, who was hiding in the dark in the bushes, and who would otherwise have been much harder to find, the department reported.
Bertini noted that a city in Southern California is working on a pilot program — "no pun intended," he joked — to use drones as first responders.
The police department in the city of Chula Vista in San Diego County began deploying drones as first responders within a 1-mile radius of the police department in October 2018 after studying the possibility with a committee exploring best practices and policies since December 2015.
The department calls the use of drones "transformational" as it allows responders to see what is happening at an incident before emergency personnel arrive, sometimes minutes later. The drones have cameras that can stream HD video back to an emergency center or the police department headquarters, as well as to the first responders, supervisors and command staff. A teleoperator controls the drone and communicates with responders in the field.
"Imagine the value of knowing that the truck leaving the scene of a robbery report is red and heading northbound, or that the report of a man with a gun is actually a 16-year-old with a BB gun, or the accident on the freeway involves a tanker truck with placards indicating a chemical hazard," the department states on its website. The department has made drone flight data publicly accessible.
These procedures raise the obvious privacy concerns around what gets recorded and who gets access to it.
In Chula Vista, video surveillance collected by drones is considered part of an "investigative record" and is not subject to public release under the California Public Records Act or Freedom of Information Act. Operators cannot intentionally record or transmit images of "any location where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy such as private backyards or inside private buildings, except where authorized by a warrant," according to department policy. Pilots are expected to have specific licenses under the FAA.
The Mountain View policy states that "operators will take reasonable precautions to avoid inadvertently recording or transmitting images that infringe upon an individual's right-to-privacy," though being able to do so relies on operator considerations about when to turn the recording function on and off while the drone is being deployed. The policy also states that operators should avoid flying over private property to the extent possible.
Being in the middle of Silicon Valley, Bertini said, "It's almost expected that we would be trying to parlay this technology to do our job better, safer and more effectively."
The next step for the idea to move forward will be to schedule a study session on the topic, after which a proposal and funding request might be developed, depending on the City Council's direction.