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SFPUC becomes first city department to set policy for drone use

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The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says it will primarily use drones to monitor land outisde of The City. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The first city department in San Francisco adopted a policy on Tuesday to begin deploying drones.

In May, The City said five departments could start using drones if they adopted their own drone-use policies and adhered to certain rules to address privacy concerns.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved its policy to allow the use of drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles, for three purposes: construction management, environmental monitoring and documentation, and inspection of SFPUC properties and assets.

Mary Ellen Carroll, SFPUC’s emergency planning and security director, identified two specific projects where drones will start being used.

One is the ongoing $810 million Calaveras Dam Replacement Project, which will incorporate drones to monitor the construction and the impacts to nesting birds, SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan told the San Francisco Examiner. The other project involves using drones to conduct a plant census of the rare or endangered Fountain Thistle Plant on SFPUC’s Peninsula lands.

Sheehan said the drones would be used by private contractors in adherence with the SFPUC’s drone-use policy.

“Engaging in the unauthorized use of drones or activities that are inconsistent with this Policy may be grounds for termination of the relevant contract, as well as applicable monetary fines and penalties,” the SFPUC’s drone use policy states.

Additionally, it states, “This Drone Policy must be reviewed and signed by all drone operators, including contractors.”

After one year, the drone use will undergo a mandatory evaluation.

While drone technology is viewed as a more effective and less costly way of accomplishing a variety of tasks, it has also raised a number of privacy concerns, which is why the policies are necessary.

The SFPUC’s policy adheres to The City’s privacy criteria established in May, which advises departments to destroy unprocessed “raw data” once the purpose of the drone recording is over and requires departments to not retain raw data for more than one year.

“Should PII [personal identifiable information] that is not related to the authorized purpose be incidentally collected through use of drones, the SFPUC shall remove all PII from the raw footage, or destroy the raw footage, within one year of collection,” the SFPUC drone policy states.

The drone footage scrubbed of any personal identifiable information would come under the SFPUC Records Management Policy. For example, drone video footage data collected for environmental monitoring and documentation would be retained indefinitely.

The SFPUC is among five city departments permitted to adopt their own drone policies for a one-year pilot. The Fire Commission held a hearing last month on a draft policy of its own but has yet to adopt it.

After a two-year discussion, the Committee on Information and Technology, overseen by City Administrator Naomi Kelly, approved in May the citywide drone-use policy that authorizes the SFPUC, Fire Department, Port, City Controller’s Office and Recreation and Park Department to deploy drones if they create a specific policy of their own.

“We are primarily going to use these drones outside of San Francisco on our watersheds lands,” said Michael Carlin, SFPUC’s deputy general manager. “Our focus will be outside of San Francisco.”
Carlin also said the agency will also look at inspecting power lines using drones instead of helicopters, as is the current practice, which would reduce costs.

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