New San Francisco policy could let city agencies launch drones

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.

Preventing drones from infringing on privacy rights is a key provision of the Committee on Information Technology’s new policy. The rules spell out how any city agency or employee can use a drone, even for seemingly benign purposes like search and rescue missions or pier inspections.

The committee began studying the issue two years ago after one of the Recreation and ParkDepartment’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 had a fleet of camera-toting drones to assess trees, parks and facilities. Those plans were 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. And any “incidentally collected” information that could identify a person or private information must be deleted from the raw data captured by a drone.

“We were making sure we are using them in a responsible way,” City Administrator Naomi Kelly said.

The 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, while the information technology committee retains the right to revoke permission.

In the last two years, consumer drones have become so popular that the Federal Aviation Administration has issued new regulations governing their use. More than 347 police, fire and other public safety agencies in the U.S. now 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. However, that does not include the police department, which “didn’t even ask,” Kelly said. “They’re dealing with body cameras right now.”

Although any city agency can eventually apply, the drone policy now only authorizes the fire department, the Port of San Francisco, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of the Controller. Each agency would still have to draft its own specific drone plan.

The technology committee’s policy spells out different specific uses, although all 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 said.

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.

The parks department 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 public utilities commission can use drones to survey hard-to-reach areas around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of California, was not aware San Francisco was about to publish a draft drone policy. Speaking generally of drone use 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 through 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.”

San Francisco Chronicle