SACRAMENTO — With potentially thousands of commercial and police drones taking to the skies over California in coming years, state lawmakers in 2015 will again be charged with deciding how best to encourage the job-boosting industry while also safeguarding the privacy rights it threatens.
Their debates will be guided by a trio of bills introduced at the state Capitol so far this session. The proposals show lawmakers are taking competing paths as they eye the rapidly-developing and sometimes controversial drone industry, which has strong roots in San Diego County.
One former state lawmaker says it’s critical, both for the drone industry and privacy advocates, that the Legislature pass a set of rules clarifying what can and can’t be done with the unmanned aircraft in California.
“It’s kind of the Wild West of regulations because there’s no clear set of regulations for what (nonmilitary) drones can be used for,” said former Assemblyman Jeff Gorell of Camarillo, whose bill to limit what law enforcement can do with the machines was approved last year by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Drones are no longer just the machines of war used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and made by firms in San Diego County like Northrop Grumman and General Atomics. They’re now small, cheap and easy to equip with a camera and microphone, offering journalists, police, surveyors, shipping companies and a vast array of others with unprecedented business opportunities.
By the end of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to develop rules that would govern the use of nonmilitary drones nationally. In the meantime, states have begun to weigh in with their own laws, many of which are aimed at curbing law enforcement use of the machines. Hobbyists who fly drones for fun, and don’t make money from the venture, are asked by the FAA to operate within 400 feet of the ground, steer clear of airports and populated areas, and keep their drones in sight at all times.
While Brown rejected the law enforcement drone bill last year, he signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to invade a person’s privacy and take pictures with a drone. Under the new law, anyone caught using a camera drone to take pictures of somebody “under circumstances in which [they] had a reasonable expectation of privacy,” and where said picture could not have been taken without trespassing if the drone hadn’t been used, will face serious penalties, including civil fines ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
That law went into effect on Jan. 1.
This session, two Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills that would impose the same law enforcement drone limits as the one vetoed by Brown.
Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, has introduced her own bill, AB 14, to create a task force to study the industry’s needs and create a plan for regulating it, but not until January 2018 — a date privacy advocates say is too far in the future.
“My bill will not be a ‘regulation bill,’” Waldron said in an interview. “That’s not the goal. I’m trying to get the language right so that it fits California. … Something new comes out and everybody tries to regulate it.”