Drones Draw More Controversy As Berkeley Tries To Keep Them Out Of Their Skies

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It’s a bird...it’s a plane...it’s...it’s Big Brother hovering over your head.

As drone technologies continue to improve and as the official use of drones continues to extend its reach some are sounding the alarm that the birds’-eye view, high-definition surveillance poses an increasing threat to personal privacy. And rather than wait for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take action, Berkeley, California is attempting to take the lead and proclaim the sky above their city a ‘No Drone Zone.’

The resolution was put forth at a December 18th Berkeley City Council meeting by the city’s Peace and Justice Commission who declared that “drones will not be purchased, leased, borrowed, tested or otherwise used by any agency of the City of Berkeley over the City of Berkeley, including drones in transit.” Anyone in violation would face fines up to $10,000 and jail time up to a year. The resolution makes an exception for drones flown by hobbyists, but only as long as they are flown in designated areas away from residential areas and are not equipped with cameras or audio surveillance devices. The resolution remains only a proposal at the moment, but it includes a charge to the City Attorney to begin the necessary legal action to turn the declaration into city legislation.

So much for taking the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 with its awesome 1280x720 HD resolution for a joy flight over the Berkeley skies.

The proposed restriction is in large part a response to efforts by the Alameda County sheriff’s office to acquire surveillance drones. Citizens yielding “No Drone” signs showed up at the meeting. City council members, however, rejected the ordinance and said the city doesn’t actually have jurisdiction over its own airspace. As one city council member, Jesse Arreguin, told Forbes, he recognizes the need to regulate the proliferation of drones, but added that “there could be appropriate uses of drones in cases of natural disasters and locating missing persons. To say we shouldn’t allow any drones at all is unreasonable and doesn’t recognize some very limited but beneficial uses.”


As the number of police agencies adopting surveillance and/or armed drones, privacy – and personal – protection guidelines will have to be established by the FAA.

The city council seems to agree. They’re passing the resolution on to several city commissions for revisions, suggesting that use during natural disasters and finding missing persons be exempt from restrictions on drones.

The resolution comes at a time when drones are being considered for an ever expanding number of applications. Aside from military applications an increasing number of law enforcement agencies, like the one at Alameda County, are looking to enlist the help of drones to increase their surveillance capabilities, or even enforcement capabilities.

The ShadowHawk is a beast of a copter drone – 7-feet long and weighing 50 lbs – that tracks criminals from above with CCD video, infrared and thermal cameras and packs a taser, a grenade launcher or – for military purposes – a laser sighted shotgun. The ShadowHawk is already being used at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. It was also selected by leaders in global oil and gas companies to help police the shores off of Africa to keep their ships safe from pirates.

And Americans can most likely expect to hear the buzzing sound of aerial security themselves. Already fifty different organizations around the US have received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use aerial drones for surveillance. Seattle became among the approved in October. Just as in Berkeley, the decision was met with a crowd of protesters.

Despite the very understandable hesitation seen in some communities, the use of drones around the US for domestic surveillance is expected to increase. Last year the Obama administration put in for $5 billion to fund its drone program. And Congress just recently ordered the FAA to select six locations around the US to conduct safety tests on drones of all sizes.

The growing emphasis for drone use on the domestic front doesn’t mean the US government is slowing down their military drone program. Right now the US military has about 8,000 drones in operation, making up around one-third of their total military aircraft and they plan on spending $36.9 billion over the next eight years to expand the drone fleet by 35 percent.

Drones are already a controversial topic for many. And as they make their way from far flung lands of war to – literally – our own backyards, federal and state courts should brace for the dogfight undoubtedly on its way to meet them.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 10 Responses

  • To Post January 9, 2013 on 10:20 am

    Drones can help us to keep our eyes on the police. When police know they are being watched from above by drones and below by camera phones they better behaved. We need more sousveillance than surveillance.

  • William Betz January 9, 2013 on 1:55 pm

    If you saw a drone, there is no way to tell who it belongs to, to track it, or anything else. If you were a marksman, you might be able to shoot it out of the sky.
    Why create unenforceable laws?
    Then, let’s say that it belongs to the FBI. You can not pass local laws that limit Federal Agencies. If you shoot it out of the sky, you are destroying government property.

    • Levi Dettwyler William Betz January 14, 2013 on 2:43 pm

      Drones can’t stay up forever. They eventually have to return to home base for recharging / refueling. So, if you are illegally flying a drone, either you land it back where you are and it leads the authorities to you, or it lands / crashes somewhere else and you don’t have a drone anymore.

    • Superboy William Betz January 29, 2013 on 1:22 pm

      This is exactly what I think would happen. People would start shooting them out of the skies, then this would give the NSA and DARPA (and any other company involved with secret unmanned and AI projects) an excuse to let their ‘other’ aerial and terrestrial vehicles onto the public. Therefore, creating a future not too different than the Terminator movies. This may be stretching it a little, but you seem to know what you’re talking about, Will.

  • anthrobotic January 9, 2013 on 4:12 pm

    Silly hippies, their little knee-jerk reactions are so cute!

    Because like, if the concern is being monitored from the air, well then what about helicopters & airplanes & air balloons & dirigibles? What about keyhole satellites? What about some dude on top of a building with binoculars? Is this darling little protest about anything other than hard-of-thinking technological conservatism?

    No – it ain’t. They’ve got nothing! NOTHING!
    But like, if they do have something other than “Drones are bad, mmm’kay.” I’d really like to hear it.

    Oh, and another thing: props here to Mr. Murray for not openly calling them “robots,” though the word does appear in the tags…

    For more on the nomenclature issue:
    “WarBot Update: What to Call the Drones Now that They’re here at Home – Suggestions?” http://goo.gl/EiavI

    -Reno at Anthrobotic.com

  • SA23 January 14, 2013 on 1:13 am

    The state is going to use these to track political dissidents and activists.

    • Levi Dettwyler SA23 January 14, 2013 on 2:46 pm

      I thought the point of activism was to make yourself as visible as possible.

      • Superboy Levi Dettwyler January 29, 2013 on 1:44 pm

        That does not mean being spied on.

  • Superboy January 29, 2013 on 1:17 pm

    I believe if drones are permitted to surveille our skies, more than they already are, drones that think for themselves will be tested in our skies not just unmanned ones. Then the Terminator prophecy would come true, what do you think?

  • Frank Whittemore March 8, 2013 on 1:53 pm

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