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End of session: Attack of the drones

A professionally operated drone heads into the sunset. (Photo: Concept W, Shutterstock)

Drone bills are buzzing the Capitol and making a beeline for the governor’s desk.

At least four measures to curb their use already have flown out of the Legislature with bipartisan support. A fifth, approved in the Senate, awaits action in the Assembly.  The governor has not disclosed his position on any of the bills, the remnants of a dozen pieces of legislation that have targeted drones during the past two years.

The drone bills before the governor deal with more than fires, however – prisons, schools and homeowners also are in the mix.

The rapid proliferation of drones captured public attention this year after firefighters reported their operations were delayed as they fought grass and wild land fires. In July, efforts to halt a brush fire in San Bernardino County were delayed because a hobbyist’s drone flew into the area. State fire officials have warned that drones pose a hazard to aircraft. On at least two occasions, planes were temporarily grounded to avoid collisions with the drones.

“A collision with a hobby drone could easily result in major damage to firefighting aircraft, injuries to the pilot and crew on board as well as firefighters below, and/or worse, a midair collision. It is unsafe for unauthorized drones to be flown anywhere near a wildfire. CAL FIRE officials again stress to hobby drone users,” CalFire said earlier in a written statement.

The drone bills before the governor deal with more than fires, however – prisons, schools and homeowners also are in the mix. At the core of the debate are the notions of privacy and trespassing.

The Consumer Electronics Association says as many as 400,000 drones will be sold nationwide in 2015, with revenue from drone sales to exceed $1 billion over the next five years.

A bill by Sen. Ted Gaines, SB 168, would boost fines for operators of drones that interfere with emergency operations, and protect personnel from civil liability for shooting the drones down. Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, said the bill would increase penalties to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail. The bill was approved 39-0 in the 40-member Senate and is awaiting a committee hearing in the Assembly. Gaines sprawling 1st Senate District includes all or parts of 11 counties across northern California, counties that often are struck by major wild land fires — Alpine, El Dorado, Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Shasta, Sierra and Siskiyou.

A measure by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara sought to define trespassing to include the flight of a drone to within 350 feet above a person’s property. It passed the Senate 24-9 and the Assembly 56-13. Backers of the bill, SB 142, said it helped protect people’s privacy, while opponents – including the California Chamber of Commerce – said the restrictions would hinder necessary research into drone safety and efficiency.

Brown vetoed Jackson’s bill, calling it “well-intentioned” but that it “could expose the the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation.”

“Before we go down that path,” he added in his veto message, “let’s look at this more carefully.”

Another bill on the governor’s desk, AB 856 by Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier – and co-authored by Jackson – says drone overflights of private property involving video or other recording actions, may constitute an invasion of privacy, carrying civil fines of $5,000 to $50,000.

Two other bills by Gaines, also on the governor’s desk and with Democratic co-authors, would block the use of private drones to fly over schools and prisons. His SB 170 would prohibit someone from “knowingly and intentionally” flying a drone over a prison or county jail. Gaines’ other bill, SB 271, would make it an infraction to fly a drone within 350 feet over a public school campus. Exceptions in certain cases would be made for law enforcement and the news media.

Unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as “drones,” have been popping up more recently as a techy dream for hobbyists, with substantial economic potential. Earlier this year, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that as many as 400,000 drones will be sold nationwide in 2015, with revenue from drone sales to exceed $1 billion over the next five years.

But recent news about domestic drones has exposed a downside, as evidenced by the incident in fighting the San Bernardino wildfire.

It wasn’t the first such incident. In June, a mission to airdrop fire retardant over another San Bernardino fire was aborted when a hobby drone flew too close to the mission’s location. A few days later, two drones caused a temporary halt of another mission near the Del Rosa community, also in San Bernardino County. One of those drone pilots eventually was identified and detained, according to Bryan Lane of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

A federal bill, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, would make it a federal offense to launch a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal land.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently restricts drone usage above 400 feet, but the drones involved in California’s recent firefighting delays were flying at about 800 or 900 feet. Additionally, the wildfire areas were under a temporary flight restriction from the FAA, which prohibited drone flights.

“There needs to be some sort regulation in this area,” said Randy Pollack of the American Chemistry Council, who supported Jackson’s bill. “Because when you have drones flying over, they can come in, they could crash, they could create havoc among some of our equipment.“

Earlier this year, Rep. Paul Cook (R- Apple Valley) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to directly address the recent spate of Southern California firefighting disruptions. The bill, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, would make it a federal offense to launch a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal land.

“Not only did it put the lives of aerial firefighters in jeopardy, but the loss of air support for fire crews allowed the wildfire to spread,” Cook said at the time in a written statement.

The drone regulation struggle has not been limited to California. Three years ago, President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which set a September 2015 deadline for providing a safe path towards integration of unmanned drones into the national airspace. The FAA followed up on this deadline in February of this year by releasing new rules for operating small commercial drones. The federal Department of Justice published its own guidelines shortly after on how federal law enforcement agencies may use drones.

Between this scramble for regulations, public safety and privacy concerns, domestic drones are becoming a quickly developing technology. The bill, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, would make it a federal offense to launch a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal land.

Amazon’s Prime Air drones gained attention over the past two years of development, and smaller companies are also looking into implementing drones. While commercial drone operators are still waiting on FAA regulations, drones have also been considered for monitoring police situations and mapping out wildfires.

And on July 17, a delivery service called Flirtey made the first FAA-approved drone delivery in the U.S. when it brought medical supplies to an annual free clinic at a fairground in rural Wise County, Virginia. The drone-in was a collaboration among Flirtey, NASA and Virginia Tech.

Matthew Sweeney, CEO of Flirtey, is confident that commercial delivery drones are the next big step in representing how drones can be a positive industry if handled correctly.

“I’ve always personally thought that there were three industries that were going to transform the world in the next five years,” said Sweeney. “Unmanned aerial vehicle technology, 3-D printing, and whoever can figure out the future of online news.”

Ed’s Note: UPDATES with governor’s veto of SB 142, adds quotes from Brown and deletes dated material, 7-9th grafs.

 

 


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