Drone Wars: Lawmakers look to regulate them



Andrew Petersen was working on a film shoot four years ago in New Zealand when bad weather forced production to stop. But once the weather cleared, the helicopter pilot he needed for a required aerial shot was in another part of the country.

If only he had a drone.

“It was a bit of a bummer,” said Peterson, the founder of Drone Dudes, a Los Angeles-based production company specializing in aerial cinematography. “I saw the possibility for drones early on. I knew it would be a tool that would be around for a while. But I definitely didn’t see it getting to this point.”

Cheap to buy and simple to fly, camera-equipped drones are exploding in popularity. And more are coming – so many that law makers and federal officials are scrambling to create regulations to restrict their use. At the heart of the debate over drones are privacy rights and safety.

The legislation 

A pair of bills that would regulate drone use passed through the state Legislature last week and are headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

A bill proposed by Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant in most cases before flying a drone and to notify the public of their use.

Another bill passed last week was proposed by Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, and would make a person liable for invading another’s privacy with any technological device. The bill would expand state law to include new technology and would restrict the ability of the paparazzi to collect images of celebrities by using drones.

The issue of proliferating drones is so pressing that Chau convened a hearing at UCLA last month with state elected leaders, law enforcement officials and commercial drone operators to discuss future regulations.

“The potential benefits of drones are undeniable and can generate tremendous benefits to our society,” Chau said at the hearing. “But with any new technology there’s also the inherit difficulty associated with finding the right balance in promoting innovation while protecting privacy. And in the case of drones, also taking into consideration safety.”

In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that there could be 30,000 drones in the skies by 2030. But with the technology booming, the agency since has revised that number, saying there will be 7,500 small commercial drones in use by 2018. The FAA is expected to release new drone regulations in 2015.

The Law 

The proposed laws come as concerns mount over law enforcement use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Los Angeles Police Department has not yet used its two camera-equipped drones. The Draganflyer X6 drones were given to the department for free in May by Seattle police after residents there protested their use.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said the drones would be used only after a lengthy public process involving the civilian police commission, and they would be used only in a tactical situation, rather than for mass surveillance.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department came under fire earlier this year when it disclosed that it had used cameras attached to a Cessna for aerial surveillance over Compton for nine days in 2012 without notifying the public. The department does not have a drone program, a spokeswoman said.

But law enforcement officials long have said that cameras are a crime-fighting tool and that drones could be far cheaper and more effective than deploying officers for a range of incidents like search and rescue missions, suspect searches and crime scene documentation.

The Concern 

Citizen watchdog groups, however, have voiced concerns about how police could potentially use drones to conduct mass surveillance.

The devices are currently being used by the Department of Homeland Security for border and port surveillance. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department flies the Qube, a 5½-pound quadcopter mounted with an HD camera and motion-sensing software that can fly for up to 40 minutes.

“I would call this a privacy-invading technology,” said Hamid Khan, an organizer with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which supports bans on police drones. “I don’t know how else you can look at it.”

Khan pointed to a variety of ways police could use drones, including surveying city populations with high definition and infrared cameras or arming the devices with spray tear gas and rubber bullets for crowd control.

“What we know is that there is a large body of evidence that says drones have been used to survey and spy; they kill and they crash,” Khan said. “But we don’t yet have an extensive understanding of benefits. That triggers a very alarmist view and a deep anxiety in our society as well.”

And with so many more drones flying, there are also issues about safety. In early August, an airline pilot on approach at LAX told air traffic controllers he saw a drone flying around 4,000 feet about 10 miles away from the airport. The incident is being investigated.

“There’s certainly a need to make sure unmanned vehicles can operate safely in a commercial and private airspace,” said Curt Castagna, an aviation security expert and adjunct professor in the aviation management program at Cal State Los Angeles. “We know there would be a disastrous effect if there was an aircraft accident between any type of aircraft, manned or unmanned. The primary obligation of the FAA and air traffic control is to make sure the interaction between manned or unmanned aircraft is safe. This is new territory for the FAA.”

The Gray Area 

As drones proliferate, technology advances and the technical know-how needed to fly them drops. Drones have become increasingly popular with cinematographers and photographers, many of whom operate the devices in a gray area. The FAA mandates all commercial drones are certified, flown by a licensed pilot with prior operating approval.

Most drone users, however, operate under guidelines for flying model aircraft, which calls for the devices to be below 400 feet, at least 3 miles from an airport and away from populated areas.

“It’s very murky,” said Simon Nielson, the founder of Venice-based Cntrl.Me Robotics, who built his first drone – an F450 quadcopter – four years ago. “There are general guidelines, but those guidelines are outdated and need to be rewritten.”

Nielson said specific restrictions should include when and where drones can soar, along with a licensing or certification process for operators.

The Future 

A new chapter in the history of aviation is being written in the small office of Cntrl.Me, where, inside, drones are mounted to walls, drones hang from the ceiling and a blue bumper sticker on a storage cabinet reads, “My other vehicle is unmanned.”

There is a drone not much bigger than a quarter. There are drones the size of a kitchen table. Drones in various stages of assembly sit on a work bench near the back.

“We can’t make them fast enough,” said Adam Gibson, director of marketing for the eight-employee Venice company that assembles the devices for a range of clients – casual hobbyists, local photographers, video production companies, businesses in Italy and China – who use drones for security and surveillance. Some sell for under $1,000, others for as much as $20,000.

Cntrl.Me is currently making eight drones to send to corporations it oversees and just built a drone that flew inside the Forum in Inglewood for Sunday’s “MTV Video Music Awards,” a 12-pound craft made of carbon fiber with six propellers.

About 30 percent of business for Cntrl.Me is made of hobbyists. The rest is made of clients in the commercial and public sectors. Gibson said that although today most commercial drones are used for photography and video production, the potential for the devices is seemingly limitless: from product transportation and deliveries to fish finding, surveying quake damage, exploring for oil and gas and fighting forests fires.

Google, UPS and Amazon have explored ways to use drones, and Imagineers with Walt Disney Co. filed patents last month outlining plans to use drones capable of carrying large puppetlike characters and projection screens during nighttime shows at the company’s theme parks, including Disneyland.

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