Seeking a new vantage point to solve everyday challenges, the Mountain View City Council gave the green light Tuesday evening to allow the use of drones -- provided it doesn't infringe on the privacy rights of the people below.
The proposed pilot program, put forth by city staff, says that Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), better known as drones, could be a valuable asset to the city's police, fire and even public works departments. The bird's-eye view, along with thermal imaging and infrared cameras, could assist the city in a myriad of tasks ranging from mundane -- like roof and gutter inspections -- to disaster management and mass casualty events.
For the police department, drones could bring an important aerial view during the pursuit of a suspect, according to the staff report. If someone escapes from a crime scene, a drone with thermal imaging and a high-resolution camera would "greatly improve" chances of finding a suspect when K-9 search dogs and officers on foot are not enough. It could also come in handy when handling suspected explosive devices and documenting crime scenes and vehicle collisions.
Showing off the potential uses at the April 9 council meeting, Lt. Saul Jaeger of the Mountain View Police Department screened a short film showing the use of drones to inspect buildings and peer through thick clouds of smoke to pinpoint hot spots in a major fire. In one incident, law enforcement officials stopped at a home while a drone flew overhead, which revealed that the suspects had fled through the backyard and onto a nearby street.
Council member Alison Hicks said her privacy concerns centered around random patrols, and worried that police drones would be permitted to buzz around single-family residential neighborhoods the same way a cop car patrols the roadway.
"Could it possibly become fairly common that drones would be flying over our houses instead as you do your job?" Hicks asked. "Because I think that that is something that could be problematic."
Jaeger said the intent is not to use drones for patrolling purposes, but in response to a specific incident. The drones likely won't be taking off from police headquarters on Villa Street and flying to a location -- just as a K-9 police dog wouldn't be sent running to a crime scene from the police station while officers drive there -- and would instead be stuffed into the trunk of a police car and pulled out at the scene.
Council member Chris Clark, who agreed drones could be a valuable asset that could save lives, said he wanted clarity on whether incidental crimes or violations discovered by a drone could be "actionable." City Attorney Jannie Quinn said it would be largely contingent on whether the people involved had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Several law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area are already using drones, and the nearby Santa Clara Police Department and Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety are seeking to adopt drone programs of their own. The Mountain View Police Department dabbled in using drones last July during the two-day Audiostic music festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre, partnering with San Jose-based Aptonomy to fly a patrol drone around the venue in short intervals.
The department was cautious to describe it as a "one-time demo," but said in a statement that it could be a valuable tool for detecting suspicious activity ranging from car break-ins to drug deals around the perimeter of the concert and surrounding parking lots. The drone itself was pretty big -- weighing 30 pounds with a 5-foot wingspan -- and was designed to fly autonomously, avoid obstacles and detect "anomalies" without human interaction.
The department didn't write a lengthy report on lessons learned from the demo, but generally observed that the technology could be a valuable tool for Mountain View's law enforcement, police spokeswoman Katie Nelson told the Voice. She said the city isn't looking specifically at Aptonomy's drone and accompanying software as its first option, in part because it may already be yesterday's technology.
"The incredible thing about UAS technology is that it advances so quickly, and it is entirely possible that things we saw a year ago would be outdated or obsolete should a program be adopted by either us, the fire department or the city, or a combination of the three." Nelson said.
From the outset, city staffers are suggesting several limitations on drone use and equipment. The city would not, for example, turn the drones into a flying version of RoboCop by arming them with weapons, and surveillance for the sake of random scouting expeditions would be prohibited. The staff report goes on to say that police would be barred from using drones to target people based solely on their race, ethnicity, religion or country of origin, and would be able to use the drones only for city-related business.
Would the use of a drone monitoring Shoreline Amphitheatre amount to a "proactive" surveillance activity that would be barred under a future city policy? Nelson said it's too early to say, but it's possible that the City Council may decide to pass more restrictive policies that prevent the use of drones during concert season to manage traffic flows and identify "problem spots."
"The departments are nowhere near that point, however," Nelson said.
As technology becomes more ingrained in law enforcement activities, council member Ellen Kamei said the city might need to adopt an overarching framework that establishes clear ground rules for use of surveillance devices. She said the city could emulate Santa Clara County, which requires all surveillance technology to receive approval and outline authorized and prohibited uses; data collection, protection and retention; public access; and third-party data sharing. The policy was proposed by Supervisor Joe Simitian in 2016, and has been used as a template for approving everything from license plate readers and trail cameras to fingerprint machines and records systems.