By James Poulos.
In an all-too-real conflict between man and machine, a string of high-profile clashes between drones and public servants has helped spur an effort to crack down on the airborne bots in California.
But at the same time, civil libertarian concerns have prompted a parallel controversy over law enforcement’s desire to use more drones to fight crime.
Crossing the line
Along with Golden State legislators, members of California’s Congressional delegation have grown concerned that so-called recreational drones, flown by private citizens, have become a serious threat to the state’s ability to safely operate in its own airspace. “Without common sense rules, I believe it’s only a matter of time before there’s a tragic accident,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in an emailed statement reported by Emergency Management:
“Feinstein and other lawmakers are demanding that regulators revise existing law to plug a loophole sparing recreational drones from the regulations. They are also are seeking the use of software that would prevent drones from flying in prohibited areas.”
In Sacramento, meanwhile, lawmakers faced a battery of drone bills. One group focused on invasions of privacy; as the Orange County Register reported, state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, offered bills aimed at clearing the skies over public schools, prisons and jails — measures that have already passed the state Senate and await a vote in the Assembly appropriations committee. Other bills would extend trespassing and other privacy laws to cover the use of drones over private property and in otherwise private areas.
Gaines has also partnered up with Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, to target drones flown over wildfires. As CalWatchdog reported previously, drones disrupted aerial firefighting in California four times over the course of the month of July alone. The Gaines-Gatto bills would make that kind of interference a misdemeanor and exempt firefighters from liability for neutralizing offending drones.
A spreading problem
In addition to complicating California’s efforts to fight fires, dismaying drone-related incidents have begun to spread across the country. As the Washington Post noted, “drones have smuggled drugs into an Ohio prison, smashed against a Cincinnati skyscraper […] and nearly collided with three airliners over New York City.”
“Earlier this summer, a runaway two-pound drone struck a woman at a gay pride parade in Seattle, knocking her unconscious. In Albuquerque, a drone buzzed into a crowd at an outdoor festival, injuring a bystander. In Tampa, a drone reportedly stalked a woman outside a downtown bar before crashing into her car.”
But California has remained a drone hotspot a cut above the rest. Drug runners have begun testing out the use of drones to ferry payloads across the border. “Drones as a drug-smuggling tool made news in January when one hauling meth crashed in the parking lot of a Tijuana shopping center, two miles from the U.S. border,” according to U-T San Diego. “It was loaded with about seven pounds of drugs and was likely being ferried from neighborhood to neighborhood, Mexican law enforcement said.”
Just this month, U-T added, two men pleaded guilty to picking up 28 pounds of heroin delivered by drone near Calexico, “a pickup that was captured on Border Patrol cameras on April 28, according to court records.”
Also this month, a helicopter air ambulance taking a patient to the hospital “had to take evasive action to avoid a mid-air collision with a drone aircraft Wednesday afternoon north of Fresno Yosemite International Airport,” according to the Fresno Bee.
The sense of uncertainty pervading the airspace has been compounded by Sacramento’s inability to deal with the prospect of expanded law enforcement drone usage. One bill underscoring the problem, AB56, set out to strike a balance by requiring warrants for drone surveillance over private property and new police standards for privacy, including the storage and deletion of video footage recorded by drone, as the Associated Press noted.
But the bill hit against opposition from both sides, with the ACLU and law enforcement organizations both expressing displeasure over the attempted compromise. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, expressed his frustration to the AP. “There’s a middle ground that nobody likes,” he sighed.