December 18, 2012
If everything goes according to plan, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office will soon have a drone, a small unmanned aircraft, to aid with crowd control, search-and-rescue missions and other law enforcement duties that could use a set of eyes in the air.
Think of it as the newest tool for law enforcement. Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy about this.
The chief concern of critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, is that the drones threaten the privacy rights of everyday citizens.
The Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission went as far as to propose a ban, a "No Drone Zone" in Berkeley airspace for all but hobbyists.
But despite the commission's stern stance, in the not-too-distant future the skies above American cities will host unmanned flying vehicles.
As an Oakland resident, I'd like to propose that all future law enforcement drone flyovers planned for Berkeley instead be rerouted here. We need all the help we can get.
In Oakland, residents are concerned that there aren't enough law enforcement eyes to watch out for them. We already use technology to help detect and trace gunfire. We're endeavoring to make downtown Oakland a place with more cameras perched on building ledges than pigeons. The city has a program to aid private businesses to install their own systems.
The truth is that personal privacy was breached by modern technology nearly 20 years ago, and there's no going back.
There's little you can't see for yourself online, and if nudity advocates in Berkeley and San Francisco had their way over the years, there would be little you couldn't see just walking down the street.
However, the potential applications for unmanned aircraft are boundless.
Desired in Oakland
In Oakland, Police Chief Howard Jordan supports their use for law enforcement because the flying machines - which federal guidelines limit to 55 pounds or less - can serve as a force multiplier in a city whose officers are outnumbered, outgunned and too often out-maneuvered by the bad guys. "If they're used to assist us in fighting crime, locating hazardous materials, search-and-rescue efforts and catching the bad guys, I have no problem using them," Jordan said.
He dismissed the privacy issue, noting that many law enforcement agencies already possess helicopters equipped with advanced sensory systems.
"A helicopter can already do the same thing - but they cost three times as much to operate," Jordan said.
The sheriff's department has requested a little more than $30,000 to purchase a drone, but the plan requires a public hearing process and final approval by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, which last week tabled the matter because of vigorous voices raising privacy concerns.
"The (unmanned aircraft systems) are a tool that we're going to use for mission-specific events," said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a sheriff's department spokesman. "We've used remote-controlled robots for more than a decade, and they too are specific tools used for specific jobs."
It's particularly interesting to see Berkeley in the middle of the latest potential government threat on personal privacy, but certainly not because it's out of character.
Irony in Berkeley
It's because in a UC Berkeley lab just a couple of miles away from Berkeley City Hall, Karl Hedrick, a professor of mechanical engineering, is working with his team at the Center for the Collaborative Control of Unmanned Vehicles on the next generation of unmanned flight: autonomous aircraft tasked and equipped to search for anything from a gas leak to a lost hiker. It could fly to the target, avoiding dangerous obstacles, conduct a search, collect data and return - all without any remote operation.
"They are very good at surveillance, and if it was just controlling traffic or chasing the bad guys, I don't think the public would have too much of a problem with that," Hedrick said.
I sure hope not, because their arrival is inevitable.
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