Berkeley City Council discusses drone policy at special meeting Tuesday

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The determination of a city drone policy came one step closer to fruition at a special Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday night, during which council members considered either limited application of or an outright citywide ban on drone use.

Although the council did not vote during the work session, it heard three commission recommendations on drone policy as well as public comments. The work toward a resolution began in 2012, when the Peace and Justice Commission and the Police Review Commission submitted separate recommendations to the council asking to adopt an ordinance that would designate the city as a “no drone zone.”

“We believe the potential benefits of drones in a disaster-response setting to be outweighed by the hazard to public safety represented by unmanned aerial vehicles flying in Berkeley,” said Peace and Justice Commission member Bob Meola at the meeting.

At the meeting, the groups pushed their proposals, which were in contrast to that of the Disaster and Fire and Safety Commission, which only endorses the use of drones for first responders in the case of emergency situations.

Reading from his commission’s resolution, Jack Hamm, vice chair of the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, outlined to the council a policy in which drone use would need to be approved by the city and operated by only Berkeley Police Department or Berkeley Fire Department for specific purposes in emergency situations.

In early 2013, Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first city in the nation to adopt an anti-drone resolution in the form of a two-year moratorium, after recommendations from a local civil liberties organization. Later, Lincoln, Nebraska, banned drone use in its police department, and Seattle returned to its vendor drones that had previously been purchased for police use.

Many speakers rallied behind a drone-free policy — or at least heavy regulation — during public comment, including Tessa D’Arcangelew of ACLU of Northern California, who told the council that drones are “a major threat to our privacy.”

Kene Akametalu, a UC Berkeley graduate student researching unmanned aerial vehicle technology, however, read a statement advising against an outright ban on drones in the city, stating that doing so would restrict research and entrepreneurial opportunities.

“(Banning drones) would also make UC Berkeley less attractive to world-class researchers who work in this area and give advantage to our competitors, including MIT and Stanford,” Akametalu read to the council.

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said he was open to limited drone use but mirrored the commission’s caution against civil-liberties violations, whereas Councilmember Maxwell Anderson warned against the misuse of technology.

“Once the door is open and you don’t have a regulatory or oversight control on it, the technology drives the politics and the economics,” Anderson said at the meeting.

The drone issue was referred to the agenda committee for future study.