Questions buzz over drone usage in South Bay cities


On July 4, Hermosa Beach’s police chief Sharon Papa was conducting roll call at the station when a loud boom sounded from City Hall. A small camera-equipped drone, or unmanned aerial device, had crashed in the atrium, and no one was there to claim it.

“At first my thought was, ‘Was someone trying to spy on the police?’” Papa recalled.

She was relieved when surveillance footage showed that the culprits had been just a couple of harmless kids. She recounts the incident with ease, but acknowledges that the situation could have been more dire.

In El Segundo, the Chevron refinery has recently documented three separate incidents wherein a small drone trespassed onto its property and proceeded to circle around equipment and infrastructure. Refinery staff called the police on one occasion, but without a city ordinance mandating how the technology’s use can be curtailed, they couldn’t deter the drone controller, let alone charge him with a crime.

Joe Caravello, the refinery’s emergency-response team lead, urged the El Segundo City Council earlier this month to ban drones or regulate them, as an accident at the refinery, which processes 274,000 gallons of transportation fuel every day, would directly impact the surrounding communities.

“A lot of drone operators don’t understand what they’re doing when they fly into a refinery and what the risk is,” Caravello said. “They could also become a major distraction when work is going on, but the biggest thing is security … There are some very bad people out there that would like that info and can use it to hurt the refinery.”

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are on the rise in U.S. airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates them, estimates that at least 30,000 drones will be airborne across the country by 2024.

One report estimates $6.4 billion is currently spent annually to develop drone technology around the world. In 10 years, that number is expected to nearly double.

And domestically, the industry is expected to create 100,000 new jobs during that time, while adding $82 billion to the economy, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a Virginia-based trade group.

“The fact that you can order it online, take it out of the box and fly it. It could end up in anyone’s hands,” said Bo Bridges, a Manhattan Beach-based photographer who purchased his first drone in 2010.

Bridges, who previously shot for ESPN’s X Games, now owns three drones and uses them to shoot surfers and bikers, but he doesn’t anticipate using those photos professionally until the drone’s built-in camera technology improves, he said.

Aside from recreational use, drones, which vary widely in cost and specifications, have show usefulness across a spectrum of uses.

The FAA requires approval for drones weighing more than 55 pounds. So far it has certified more than 600 public-sector entities to fly drones, largely law enforcement agencies and universities. U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies 10 unarmed Predator drones to patrol the borders for smugglers and trespassers. Other agencies use drones to survey disasters, fires, hostage situations and more.

Commercial use is currently outlawed by the FAA, although the agency’s authority has been in question.

Last month, Amazon wrote a letter to the FAA seeking exemption for its PrimeAir program, which banks on delivering items via drones to customers within a half hour. On its website, the Seattle-based company anticipates the delivery option to be available as early as next year.

Because civilian use of drones is unprecedented, laws governing its use are still murky. Papa said her department has fielded a few complaints about a drone lurking on the beach or by someone’s window. Yet there’s not much police can enforce, as no municipal code regulates the use of drones. Hermosa Beach, like many others, is waiting for federal and state laws to crystallize before trying to regulate them.