Pending SF policy could let city agencies launch drones

Pending SF policy could let city agencies launch drones

By Benny Evangelista May 3, 2017 Updated: May 4, 2017 4:53pm

Five San Francisco agencies, including the fire, port and parks departments, could start flying drones under a set of rules that a city committee is expected to approve Friday.

The Committee on Information Technology’s proposed drone policy focuses on privacy rights, spelling out how any city agency or employee can use a drone even for seemingly benign flights like search-and-rescue missions or pier inspections.

The 15-member committee began studying the issue two years ago after one of the Recreation and Park Department’s nine drones was stolen from a city vehicle after just one test flight.

The crime alerted privacy-rights advocates to the fact that the department even owned a fleet of camera-toting drones to assess trees, parks and facilities. That fleet was grounded while the city developed an overall drone policy.

“Departments must have an authorized purpose to collect information using a drone, or use drone-collected information,” according to a draft of the policy. The policy advises city departments “not to maintain archives of raw, unprocessed drone data” once its mission is accomplished, and says that any “incidentally collected” information that could identify a person or private information must be deleted.

“We were making sure we are using them in a responsible way,” said City Administrator Naomi Kelly, one of the city officials on the committee.

Drone-law expert Steven Miller of the Hanson Bridgett law firm said privacy concerns are driving adoption of such public drone policies.

“Those agencies who desire to use drones without such policies in place have run up against considerable public anxiety over how the government plans to use these drones,” Miller said.

But he said only time will tell whether a city agency flying a drone might be brought to court for infringing on someone’s privacy rights. A drone surveying treetops, for example, could snap a photo of someone who isn’t doing anything criminal but doesn’t want to be seen at that moment, he said.

If approved, the San Francisco policy itself doesn’t mean the skies over the city will immediately be filled with small unmanned aerial vehicles. Each department will have to draft its own specific policies and reasons for using drones, and the technology committee retains the right to revoke the departments’ permission to fly.

In the last two years, consumer drones have become so popular that the Federal Aviation Administration has issued regulations governing their use. More than 347 police, fire and other public-safety agencies in the U.S. use the same type of consumer drones, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

In the Bay Area, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, the Fremont Fire Department and the Moraga-Orinda Fire District have active drone programs. But community concerns over potential privacy infringement have so far kept drone programs in Berkeley and San Jose from taking off.

In San Francisco, the drone policy covers five departments that sought permission to fly: the Fire Department, the Port of San Francisco, the Recreation and Park Department, the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of the Controller.

The Police Department is not included. It “didn’t even ask,” Kelly said. “They’re dealing with body cameras right now.”

The technology committee’s policy spells out different specific uses, although all five departments can fly drones after a disaster or in an emergency.

The Fire Department, for example, can conduct reconnaissance flights over building fires, fly search-and-rescue missions and use drones to shoot video during training sessions.

And if there’s a person in the water in distress off Ocean Beach, “wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a drone drop a life jacket over the person?” Kelly asked.

The port wants to use drones for marketing photos and videos, as well as inspecting portions of piers that are “hard to see from land,” she said.

Rec and Park applied to use drones for numerous purposes, including construction management, inspecting properties, mapping, marketing and environmental monitoring of “flora and fauna,” the policy said.

The PUC plans to use drones only outside of San Francisco to survey city-owned water and power transmission lines that are in remote areas on the Peninsula, the East Bay and along the Hetch Hetchy watershed, said Mary Ellen Carroll, the PUC’s emergency planning and security director.

Using drones instead of sending workers into those sometimes hazardous areas “would be extremely beneficial,” Carroll said. The PUC hopes to begin using drones by the end of this year.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, was not aware San Francisco was about to publish a drone policy. Speaking generally about such policies, Ozer said cities needed to be fully transparent to citizens about potential surveillance technologies.

“Drafting a policy is just one part of the process that needs to make sure the right kinds of questions are asked and answered,” she said. “Whenever you’ve got a drone used purportedly for one purpose, there needs to be a very thorough conversation about how you are going to make sure it’s not going to be used for another purpose, especially given the current political climate.”

Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ChronicleBenny


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