BY MARK MUCKENFUSS | The Press-Enterprise
The Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management will meet Tuesday, Aug. 18, in Sacramento to discuss the benefits and the dangers of aerial drones. California lawmakers are up against a Sept. 11 deadline to pass any new laws regulating the use of drones.
Several pending state bills are trying to address some of the concerns that have arisen regarding the use of the aircraft – both by private citizens and law enforcement agencies. Discussion of new regulations comes on the heels of three incidents in recent weeks, where aircraft fighting wildfires in the Inland Empire were grounded because a drone was spotted in the air.
Requiring licensing or training for any kind of drone operation is being considered as one way to prevent such problems. Other legislation would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant prior to using a drone for search purposes. One bill would restrict drones from flying over certain public and private spaces. If all the proposed legislation passes, there might be few places where drones -- which have a wide variety of proposed uses from the home delivery of merchandise to searching for lost hikers -- could actually fly.
Tony Coulson, a professor and director of Cal State San Bernardino’s cyber security center, said all it really takes to keep radio-controlled drones out of a restricted area is a Girl Scout.
“A few weeks ago in Las Vegas was the DEF CON (hacking) conference,” Coulson said. “There was a gentleman showing how you could hack and take down a drone. We had taught a group of 100 Girl Scouts to do the exact same thing. The girls were able to take a flying drone and knock it out of the sky.”
It’s doubtful than any of the legislation being proposed by California lawmakers will require the use of Girl Scout hackers, but Coulson thinks certain things should be considered.
“I’ve looked at some of the legislation and some of it seems to be narrowly focused and reactionary to specific instances,” he said, referring to the recent fire incidents. “I think there needs to be a more comprehensive view on drones.”
Coulson said he also thinks legislators shouldn’t overreact.
“They’ve sold thousands and thousands of drones, but we’re not hearing about thousands and thousands of incidents,” he said.
On his own campus, Cal State officials have prohibited him and his students from flying drones over the school. Being spied on from above, is one of the main concerns of many private citizens when it comes to the use of drones.
FAA regulations require privately operated drones to fly less than 400 feet above the ground, within the sight of the operator and away from airports. Advocates for more control are turning to state lawmakers.
State Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, is on the emergency management committee. He said drones are a double-edged sword.
“When properly operated, (drones) can really create a significant public health and safety benefit,” Roth said. “At the same time, what we’re seeing is they can also endanger public health and safety.”
Roth said a regulation requiring drone pilots to be trained prior to taking flight, might be helpful.
“Commercial operators are required to get a permit,” he said, referring to such industries as film making and surveying. “But the hobbyist is not required to obtain a license or register the drone or, as I understand it, go through any kind of training.”
Roth also said lawmakers might want to consider using geo-fencing technology to close off certain areas to drones.
Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, represents portions of Temecula and Murrieta. She has a drone bill pending, AB 14. It calls for a coalition of interested parties, including unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturers, public safety officials, agriculture representatives and others, to find a balance between protecting both privacy, public access and safety in emergency situations.
“Here’s a technology with a lot of promise,” Waldron said. “We need to come up with policies that make sense, so that we can embrace the new technology.”