By Kerry Chan
While sitting on her front porch one recent late evening, San Mateo resident Denise Nelson saw a 2-foot diameter drone hovering in the sky in front of her.
“I can hear it and it was coming closer like a buzzing sound from an electric scooter,” said Nelson. “It was the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Alarmed that it was close to her neighbor’s bedroom window, no one was in sight and the drone was being controlled remotely, she called police for advice. Nelson was also concerned that someone could have been using the device to case a home for potential burglary or invasion of privacy.
The commercial use of drones is a relatively new concept to law enforcement and, while it is on their radar, the San Mateo Police Department does not have established regulations, policies or response procedures in place, said San Mateo police Sgt. Jen Maravillas.
“If there is reason to believe a drone or flying device is being used for any criminal activity, we will look to pursue applicable criminal laws and document and/or investigate any suspicious cases of this type,” Maravillas said.
San Mateo police Sgt. David Norris said the department is in the preliminary stages of identifying community stakeholders such as the district attorney, neighboring police departments, local leaders and experts to discuss their options.
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, which patrols in Half Moon Bay, Millbrae, San Carlos, Portola Valley, Woodside and more than 70 percent of the county, has not experienced any reports or complaints of private citizens using drones and is not an issue on their radar at this time, sheriff’s Deputy Rebecca Rosenblatt said.
Without cause for imminent criminal activity, local enforcement agencies cannot enforce or stop anyone from using electronic flying devices. The governing authority for drones or unmanned aircraft systems in national air space is the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Flying model aircraft solely for hobby or recreational reasons does not require FAA approval, but hobbyists should operate according to the agency’s model aircraft guidance,” said Ian Gregor, public affairs officer for the FAA.
In general, the FAA standard guidelines requires model aircraft to be kept below 400 feet above ground and “flown a sufficient distance from populated areas and full-scale aircraft, and are not for business purposes.”
In recent years, the advancement of technology has made way for sophisticated, complex model aircraft that can easily be purchased by anyone.
“Quadcopters are a relatively new phenomenon that has exploded over the last two years,” said Cliff White, owner of J & M Hobby House in San Carlos. “It’s a different form of a helicopter.”
White said the most common models are quadcopters, which consists of four motors while hexacopters have six motors. The average cost for the quadcopters, drones or hexacopters range from $39.99 up to $3,000 depending on the complexity of the device.
They are generally mounted with cameras for video recording, live stream or first-person view. First-person view, or FPV, streams a live feed of the view through the pilot’s eyes from inside the aircraft and extends the capability to fly the drone far beyond visible range.
“It is disconcerting to have an unknown person hovering over or fly by with the ability to record or view into the windows of homes,” said Nelson, adding there is no way to see who is operating the device.
White said he understands the concerns about the unethical intent of some people who might use the sophisticated and complex aircraft systems to do harm but insists his customers are the average person, techie or model aircraft enthusiast.
“Most use them in proper manner and 99 percent use them for fun or practical reasons,” White said.
The FAA is working on a proposed rule for operating small unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds, Gregor said, and is planning to publish that rule for comment later this year.