Newly published documents show that the San Jose Police Department (SJPD), which publicly acknowledged Tuesday that it should have “done a better job of communicating” its drone acquisition, does not believe that it even needs federal authorization in order to fly a drone. The Federal Aviation Administration thinks otherwise.
Late last month, a set of documents showed that the SJPD acquired a Hexacopter called the Century Neo 660, along with a GoPro video camera and live video transmitter. The nearly $7,000 January 2014 purchase was funded through a grant from the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, a regional arm of the Department of Homeland Security. San Jose, which proclaims itself the “capital of Silicon Valley,” is the third-largest city in California and the tenth-largest in the United States.
The documents, which were sent to MuckRock as part of a public records request and were published on Wednesday for the first time, make a number of statements suggesting that the SJPD has a deep misunderstanding of current drone policy.
The documents also show that SJPD Police Chief Larry Esquivel signed off on the drone acquisition on March 21, 2014, nearly two months after the drone was actually acquired. Esquivel specifically stated that his “approval/implementation” was contingent on a review by the San Jose City Attorney’s Office, a “policy in place—on specific guidelines for UAV,” referring to the drone, and “messaging/outreach to public,” none of which appear to have actually taken place. Ars has filed a new public records request to see if such a review by the City Attorney’s Office ever took place.
“The UAV is not a drone”
A March 2014 e-mail from Western Division Commander James Randol to SJPD Deputy Chief David Hober states, “The UAV is not a drone. Drones are regulated by the FAA. The FAA doesn’t regulate our device.”
But that’s not at all the perspective of the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in US airspace needs some level of authorization from the FAA to ensure the safety of our skies,” Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman for the Pacific Division, told Ars in a statement.
“The FAA authorizes UAS operations that are not for hobby or recreation on a case-by-case basis. Public entities (federal, state, and local governments, and public universities) may apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), which, when approved, provides authorization for [unmanned aircraft systems] operations in the [national airspace system],” he said.
The SJPD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.