Clouds pass over the San Francisco skyline as the last remnants of a storm front pass through the Bay Area Monday, April 5, 2010, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

San Francisco may deploy drones for variety of uses

San Francisco’s government may put some eyes in the sky as city officials are considering to lift the ban on drones for a variety of deployment situations, ranging from fighting fires to checking for city permit compliance, according to public documents.

Last week, a drone draft policy was presented to city department heads during a Committee on Information Technology meeting.

The policy, said to be in its early stages, would allow city departments to use drones in a variety of situations.

John Gavin, a spokesman for City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who oversees COIT, said the drone policy is being pursued as “a few of [the city departments] see this as a good tool.” The draft is “sensitive to those concerns” over privacy “and the conversation is ongoing,” Gavin said.

The timeline for The City possibly putting drones into use remains unclear. Gavin said that in the coming weeks city departments will provide more input on the proposed policy. He said it’s unclear when the committee might vote to adopt it.

Talks of the drone policy come not long after the Recreation and Park Department in January reported the theft of a drone. The revelation came as a surprise to some members of the public that such surveillance technology was even being used.

Rec and Park officials at the time said they were only testing the equipment with an interest in using drones to monitor the conditions of public grounds.

“Currently, all drones under the department’s jurisdiction are grounded,” department spokeswoman Connie Chan told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday.

That’s supposed to be case. In February, the city purchaser issued an order banning purchases and uses of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems, until a policy for their use was adopted by the Committee on Information Technology, upon which sit a range of city department heads.

Discussions of a drone usage policy are now underway. A copy of the draft policy states: “A City Department or City employee may only operate a drone for uses directly related to public safety or public interest.”

For public safety, drones could only be used for “firefighting, disaster relief and recovery, containment of hazardous materials, or search and rescue,” the policy says. Public interest is defined as “activities that substantially benefit the general welfare of San Francisco, such as educational, agronomic, scientific, or permit compliance purposes.”

Board of Supervisors President London Breed said drones do have their place in San Francisco, but acknowledged, “People are concerned about their privacy and what this footage is being used for.” Still, Breed said their use in a security capacity for large events like Bay to Breakers makes sense even if people object over privacy issues. “The person’s whose life it could save probably wouldn’t feel that way,” Breed said.

City departments could retain drone-collected data for up to one year. “Data gathered during First Amendment demonstrations may only be used in real-time and not recorded for archiving,” the policy says. “Before the use of a drone, departments shall notify property owners when the intended flight path is above private property. This requirement does not apply in cases of drone use during an emergency.”

There is also talks about possibly allowing permitted use of drones in the private sector, such as by those in the film industry.

Drones in all cases would not be allowed to fly higher than 500 feet above ground. Usage is also required approval by the Federal Aviation Administration under federal law.
Surveillance technology is on the rise across the nation, which promoted the American Civil Liberties Union of California to issue a report in November highlighting the importance of technology use policies. “Surveillance can also be easily misused, leading to the erosion of community trust, bad press, and even costly lawsuits,” the report said.

The City already has surveillance cameras aimed at high-crime street areas. Alcohol sale licenses generally come with conditions of surveillance cameras. The police use automatic license plate readers of vehicles driving through city streets.

City departments said little about the drone issue Monday. “SFPD does not have any drones, nor do we have any plans to get one,” said Police Department spokesman Albie Esparza in an email. Gina Simi, spokeswoman for the Planning Department, said “the policy is still in draft form and Planning will not have a position until it is finalized.”

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