The city of Berkeley, Calif., this week took the first steps toward a ban on drones as the autonomous aircraft deployed in the war on terrorism are being embraced for local law enforcement.
The debate over creating a No Drone Zone in this famously left-wing stronghold is likely to be repeated across the U.S. as ever-smaller drones equipped with high-definition cameras and sensors take to the skies with the ability to collect vast amounts of data on citizens.
While the Federal Aviation Administration is drafting rules for the deployment of drones in domestic airspace the use of drones to collect information remains largely unregulated.
On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council considered a resolution drafted by the city’s Peace and Justice Commission that would create an ordinance to ban the use of drones in Berkeley airspace and bar the police department and any other municipal agency from deploying drones. An exemption would be made for hobbyists as long as their drones are flown in non-urban areas and don’t carry cameras. Violators could be fined $10,000 and sentenced to a year in prison.
“We’re seeing a militarization of police forces throughout the country,” Eugene Ruyle of Veterans for Peace told the city council at the Tuesday meeting as spectators held “No Drone” signs. Ruyle was one of several proponents of the drone ban from groups who expressed fears that drones would be used to spy on citizens.
City council members, however, rejected an outright ban on all drones and questioned Berkeley’s ability to enforce such an ordinance.
“I’m troubled by the proliferation of drones in the United States and the lack of regulations regarding the purchase and use of drones to protect against unwanted surveillance and infringement of people’s privacy rights,” said council member Jesse Arreguin.
“That being said, there could be appropriate uses of drones in cases of natural disasters and locating missing persons,” he added. “To say we shouldn’t allow any drones at all is unreasonable and doesn’t recognize some very limited but beneficial uses.”
Council member Gordon Wozniak noted that any drone ban would be largely symbolic. “Berkeley doesn’t have jurisdiction over its airspace and we can’t enforce it unless we start buying Patriot missiles and shoot them down.”
The council voted to refer the resolution to three city commissions for further revision that would consider Arreguin’s suggestion for an exemption for drones deployed in natural disasters, to locate missing persons or assist in crime investigations.
Council members also voted to send a letter to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the sheriff requesting no drones be purchased until Berkeley completed its policy review.
“Yes, drones have been used for very bad reasons,” said council member Laurie Capitelli. “I think drones can serve a purpose. Drones are technology. They can be abused and they can be used constructively.”