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Wednesday, November 21 , 2018, 1:18 pm | Mostly Cloudy 65º


Santa Barbara Officials, Legislators Concerned About Drone Use, Regulation

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson backs bills to prevent drone interference with wildfires, privacy violations though there haven't been any local incidents

This photo of the Santa Barbara Mission was taken with an aerial drone.
This photo of the Santa Barbara Mission was taken with an aerial drone.  (Eric Isaacs / EMI Photography)

By now, most folks know what a drone is, based on stories they’ve heard — a swarm of unmanned remote-control aircrafts flying over a Southern California wildfire, interfering with firefighters, or a friend of a friend who bought one to take aerial photographs.

Drones roared into the commercial market in recent years after people outside the government and defense realms were able to buy them. As often happens, laws on the books haven’t quite caught up to challenges the new technology brings.

The number of drone sightings by pilots in the United States has more than doubled this year compared to last year, with 238 in 2014 compared to 650 by Aug. 9, 2015, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs the skies.

The FAA rolled out drone regulations this summer, which focused on commercial versus recreational use and generally asked operators to keep drones in line of sight and below 400 feet, three miles from an airport and away from populated areas. They should also weigh fewer than 55 lbs, unless otherwise certified.

Basically, be smart and “drone responsibly.”

Santa Barbara County hasn’t seen the close-call collisions between drones and airplanes or helicopters, or interrupting firefighting efforts, but officials say it’s only a matter of time.

“It could happen in our community,” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson said. “We shouldn’t treat them as toys because the potential dangerous impact of these drones is tremendous. We haven’t had this problem at this level ever before.”

Santa Barbara Airport operations manager Tracy Lincoln confirmed he’s not aware of any local sightings, but he followed up comments with, “knock on wood.”

Authorities still haven’t come up with solid rules for recreationally flying remote-controlled drones, which often are carrying cameras. Click to view larger
Authorities still haven’t come up with solid rules for recreationally flying remote-controlled drones, which often are carrying cameras.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk file photo)

He said a couple businesses near the airport asked if they could fly a drone to get cool aerial shots of their buildings, so Lincoln referred them to the air traffic control tower to coordinate with the FAA directly.

“They’re really awesome, but they need to figure out how to control every Tom, Dick and Harry that buys them,” Lincoln said. “I think most people want to be safe.”

Anyone can find a drone online starting at less than $100, with Samy’s Camera in Santa Barbara is selling nearly a dozen different models.

Some local realtors even hire drone photographers to take pictures of listed properties, although most didn’t want to talk specifics because of uncertainty with rules.

Last week, California’s Senate Judiciary Committee and Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management hosted an oversight hearing on the pros and cons of drones.

Jackson, who sits on both committees, acknowledged the exciting potential, including Amazon delivery by drone, farmers flying drones to identify areas on property that need water, or emergency personnel working them into search and rescue operations.

Juxtaposed with her enthusiasm were the horror stories of five drones downing firefighting planes in Riverside or a drone preventing a medical helicopter from landing at a Fresno hospital.

“Along with the positive applications — as we see with most emerging technologies — there really are some significant concerns about privacy,” Jackson said.

“Laws do prohibit interfering with (wildfire) operations but don’t mention drones specifically. It really presents significant problems.”

She has joint-authored a bill in response to drones impacting wildfire operations and penned another to prohibit drones from trespassing on private property.

SB 167, which will soon go to a Senate Public Safety committee, would make it a misdemeanor to knowingly operate a drone in a manner preventing or delaying efforts to extinguish a fire — punishable by up to six months in county jail and a maximum fine of $5,000.

SB 142, which would create a “no-fly zone” of 350 feet above private property, passed off the Assembly floor Monday with a 56-13 vote. The bill heads to the Senate next. 

If the FAA catches drone violations, the agency can file criminal charges and impose jail time or fines of $1,000 to $25,000, depending on seriousness of violation, according to FAA spokesman Ian Greger.

He said the FAA doesn’t have any active or closed enforcement cases in Santa Barbara County but noted the agency would work with local law enforcement if it did.

When rules are clearer, Santa Barbara County Fire will be ready to use its recently purchased drone, but not before then, said public information officer Mike Eliason.

“There are definitely positives and negatives involved with it,” he said.

Drones operating near wildfires are especially dangerous because planes, helicopters and air tankers all work together to battle a blaze in an area the FAA designates with a “temporary flight restriction,” Eliason said.

Each operates slowly to drop water or fire retardant — or to coordinate specific locations — and then needs to fly out quickly.

“A little thing such as a drone could get sucked into an engine or propeller,” Eliason said.

As part of its “When you fly, we can’t” public awareness campaign, CalFIRE last week launched an anonymous tip line to report drones seen interfering at fire scenes. The number is 1-844-DRONE11.

Likewise, commercial and private airplanes are notably more vulnerable when flying into or out of an airport.

Lincoln said visibility is reduced during takeoff because the nose of a plane is pointed up, and high power settings during takeoff and departure increase the likelihood of debris like a drone getting sucked into an engine, which could cause engine failure. 

Helicopters have similar visibility issues when landing or taking off, Lincoln said.

FAA guidelines say commercial drone users are supposed to obtain licenses and permits through the agency — a process described as taking two months to a year — but the threshold of what constitutes a business use was less clear.

Santa Barbara freelance photographer Eric Isaacs sees a big difference between flying his 1.5-pound plastic drone and the folks with 50-pound metal frames.

He’s had a drone two years, first as a hobbyist or for photo gigs and more recently as a go-to for real estate companies wanting aerial views of residential listings.

Isaacs thinks of all the times he wished he could hover 60 feet up, getting the perfect artistic angle. Now he can.

“For real estate, it’s sort of a no-brainer,” Isaacs said. “Getting an aerial view of something is very valuable.”

Isaacs controls his small drone, which sounds like a swarm of bees, with a remote control that sends video and still images straight to his cell phone. He said he’s following the rules to the best of his ability, staying low and away from other planes.

What some people don’t realize, he said, is that drones are equipped with safety features that won’t let them fall from the sky when batteries run out. They also have wide-angle lenses that are looking forward, not straight into people’s backyards.

“Educating people on that aspect is going to take a while,” Isaacs said, speaking to Jackson’s proposed privacy bill.

“It doesn’t address the reality of the problem; it addresses the perception.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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