Ground rules needed as S.F. drone use skyrockets


By C.W. Nevius

San Francisco’s Dolores Park is known for many things: sunbathing, hipsters and weekend picnics. But lately it has a new designation — drone airport.

“If you go to Dolores Park, there’s pretty much a drone overhead all the time,” says Brandon Basso, a software engineer for 3D Robotics, a leading drone manufacturer in Berkeley. “And what you have is one person enjoying flying a drone and the other 99 percent looking at it and saying, ‘God, that’s annoying.’”

Better get used to it. The U.S., and San Francisco in particular, is experiencing a drone boom, and the skies are getting crowded pretty fast.

Samy’s Camera, at Ninth and Bryant streets, is known for two things: only one “m” in Samy and its large inventory of drones.

“Some months we sell a drone a day,” says Ryan Waller, who helps customers get their drones off the ground. “It’s not that hard to learn. You could fly it the first day.”

Nor are they incredibly expensive. The Iris Plus from 3D Robotics sells for about $750, although Waller says, “If you fully pimp them out, they can run $2,200.” Pay your money, practice for a few hours, and you’re a drone pilot. It is, undeniably, pretty cool.

“It is the experience of flying,” Basso says, “and in the history of mankind, who hasn’t wanted that?”

Persistent problems

There are, however, obvious and persistent problems. For starters, the great thing about a drone is that it can go places we’ve never dreamed of going. That’s also a bad thing.

“I sell one,” Waller says, “and the guy comes back and says, ‘I was flying over the Golden Gate Bridge the other day.’ And I say, ‘OK, you don’t get to buy drones from me anymore.’” It’s safe to say that having a drone buzz your car while crossing the bridge isn’t the safest proposition — especially because you’re already distracted by the view.

These drones, they get around: In January a man who admitted he’d been drinking lost control and crashed his drone on the White House lawn. Security personnel were not amused. (That’s what happens when you drink and drone.) And in August a tourist taking video footage in Yellowstone National Park ended up plopping his into a hot spring.

In response, the White House has installed software that makes it impossible to fly drones over the grounds, and people are prohibited from flying them in national parks.

Privacy and anonymity

And then there’s the privacy issue. Residents of a San Jose high-rise say they were buzzed in November by a drone operator who was using it to peep into windows. (“Uh, honey, we’re being watched.”) Last Saturday in San Francisco, Mission Bay residents spotted several drones sailing around the houseboats on Mission Creek. I saw one myself, hovering above the Interstate 280 flyover.

“I wouldn’t say we should get used to it, in the same way that we wouldn’t want to get used to your neighbor leaning over your fence with a camera,” Basso says. “You don’t want to condone it.”

Waller agreed: “There has to be some kind of responsibility,” he says. “You are not going to have cop drones shooting them down, but there has to be something. What happens is when people get in the air they kind of throw responsibility to the wind. You can’t control stupidity.”

And there’s another factor. Watching through the video feed, a drone operator can stay out of sight. Waller says that a small drone can travel as much as a mile and a half away. That was a problem in Paris, where police have been investigating mysterious, illegal, nighttime flights over famous landmarks. Although police eventually arrested suspects, for a while they had no idea who was flying the aircraft.

Bryan Galusha, a co-founder of Fighting Walrus, which makes a drone-control app for smartphones, says there’s a lot of work to be done in the area of responsibility.

“It is definitely a brave new world,” Galusha says. “It is somewhat like when cars first came out. There were no stop signs, no speed limits. We’ve created all that and we will for drones, but it is going to be a real challenge.”

The Federal Aviation Administration made a move in that direction when it released tentative regulations last week. They aren’t law because there is a comment period when the industry and the public has a chance to respond. But it was interesting that the FAA’s framework was less restrictive than expected. There had been, for instance, some thought that a drone operator would be required to get a license. That wasn’t included.

Establishing rules

Jesse Kallman, director of business development at Airware, a South of Market company that makes drone software, says it was an important step.

“It is really important for the industry to get some things down on paper, to know the rules,” he says. “You are going to be flying vehicles in the air, over populated areas, and we need to know that it is safe and reliable.”

Kallman sees myriad commercial uses for drones, from checking cell phone towers to mapping difficult terrain. There are even lifesaving uses, for example, searching for a lost or injured skier in a remote area.

But for now the commercial applications are a work in progress. Mapping and aerial photography are obvious uses. Joshua Ziering tried to start a pharmacy delivery service in the Mission, where drones would drop off medications at your door.

“In a highly dense area with excellent weather, of course it is viable,” Ziering says of drone delivery.

But not only did the FAA rules specifically prohibit delivery, Ziering had a little trouble getting the venture off the ground — so to speak. He is now concentrating on a drone management app called

Ultimate selfie sticks

More than anything, he’s aware of what the real application for drones is now.

“If we are looking at a percentage basis,” he says, “almost every single flight is recreational right now.”

What drones really are, Basso says, are the ultimate selfie sticks.

“No matter how cool or complicated it is, this is still basically a flying camera for you and your friends,” he says. “Most people are narcissists. They want to film themselves or use it to take photos of their kids’ soccer game.”

Maybe so, but I have to say Ziering has come up with one dynamite idea. It’s not pie in the sky — more like an ice cream sandwich.

“We’d like to do something quirky and San Francisco-y,” he says. “Say you are sitting in Dolores Park on a hot day. How cool would it be to have an ice cream sandwich float down to you on a parachute?”