Concerns hover around San Diego’s newly approved drone rules | Crain's San Diego

Concerns hover around San Diego’s newly approved drone rules

San Diego recently adopted rules governing the use of unmanned aircraft. | Photo by Christopher Michel via Creative Commons

Before San Diego City Council members voted unanimously April 10 to regulate drone use in the city, Dmitri Diakov said he was concerned the move would make it more difficult for him to get his fledgling drone business off the ground.

“The overreaction could completely put my business on hold,” Diakov said.

Diakov, a journalism and media studies professor at San Diego State University, is a longtime drone enthusiast who is in the process of launching an aerial imaging solutions company. Escondido-based Sparrow Drones aims to serve clients across the San Diego region.

It’s a dream business for Diakov, who said he started envisioning his startup after the Federal Aviation Administration drew up federal guidelines governing unmanned aircraft.

But as a growing number of drones continue to dot the local airspace, municipalities have moved to adopt rules that align with or go further than the federal mandate. In San Diego, council members opted for an ordinance that essentially mimics the FAA’s regulations, a move intended to give local law enforcement the ability to cite those who violate them. The FAA rules detail requirements for pilot certifications, aircraft specifications and where unmanned vehicles can fly.

San Diego City Council member Chris Cate, chairman of the committee that recommended the city’s amended ordinance, said the panel acted in an attempt to follow the FAA’s request that local governments enact local regulations.

“We wanted to make sure we set up our law in a way that wasn’t conflicting,” Cate said.

The FAA rules stipulate that recreational drone users must register their device in a national registry, fly no higher than 400 feet, keep their drone within their line of sight, and steer clear of airports, stadiums, groups of people, and emergency response activities. Aside from providing basic personal information, users aren’t required to reveal much about themselves and don’t need any sort of pilot’s license.

Commercial drone operators, however, must receive the Transportation Safety Administration’s stamp of approval and be in possession of a Remote Pilot Certificate, which is earned upon passing a rigorous aeronautical knowledge test.

On the ground in San Diego

Before the City Council voted on the local regulations, San Diegans aired several concerns.

Those involved in the “San Diegans for Safe Drones” Facebook group don’t think the rules do enough to address privacy concerns. The most recent post on the site, dated Feb. 28, said the city “needs to do more.”

Dan Gilleon, a local trial lawyer, said it’s disconcerting that the rules don’t specifically prohibit drone flights over schools or sidewalks.

While the FAA is in charge of regulating the airspace, Gilleon said the federal government isn’t necessarily tuned into the specific needs or concerns in individual cities and localities.

“The FAA is a federal agency – it doesn’t know San Diego, or where drones should or shouldn’t fly, here. That should be up to local legislative branches,” Gilleon said.

Beyond the FAA-crafted rules, Gilleon said it’s going to take local investment in technology and training to properly enforce drone laws.

“As the number of drones increase, the injuries are going to increase, and the first time someone gets killed from a drone fall – and it’s going to happen – people are going to wonder why we didn’t have a law on the books,” Gilleon said before the City Council vote. “I don’t think the best answer is going to be: ‘We didn’t think we could enforce that.’”

Aerial protections

Lisa Ellman, who chairs the Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice at Washington, D.C.-based Hogan Lovells, noted that states and municipalities do have the right to regulate property and privacy rights. But when adopting new rules related to drones, she said, those governments should consider whether or not they’re duplicative with what already exists.

“Most of the laws or rules already on the books cover these things,” Ellman said. “For example, there are already ‘Peeping Tom’ rules in place – just because they do it with a drone, doesn’t mean they’re not still violating ‘Peeping Tom’ rules,” Ellman said.

As far as safety is concerned, the FAA prohibits recklessly endangering the public, Ellman said. Drone operators aren’t allowed to fly directly over people, beyond visual line of sight, or at night without special permission.

Diakov said the accidents people might hear about represent a minority of situations, and that fears are driven by a lack of knowledge. He expressed confidence that educating the public about the precautions drone companies already take, and the rules that require them to do so, will help put people at ease. Until then, if drones cause enough of a ruckus, he fears legislators could overregulate.

If governments adopt more stringent rules, he said, that could turn prospective clients away from his services. It could also send the message that his business and others like it are not welcome in San Diego.

“It creates this unfriendly, paranoid environment that could really hamper commercial drone use,” he said.

April 16, 2017 - 4:10pm