WatchSonoma Watch

As drone use rises, so does concern



The YouTube video begins with a soaring journey above century-old magnolia trees that lead from Highway 12 into Kenwood’s Kunde Family

Ray Marcinkowski, the online marketing director for Vintage Wine Estates, holds a Quad Copter, in which he mounts a GoPro camera to, in order to shoot video for Kunde Family Estate. (Kent Porter / PD)

Ray Marcinkowski, the online marketing director for Vintage Wine Estates, holds a Quad Copter, in which he mounts a GoPro camera to, in order to shoot video for Kunde Family Estate. (Kent Porter / PD)


Winemaker Zach Long describes the estate’s wines as the aerial tour continues over hillside vineyards that produce each varietal.

The images are lovely, the production slick. It’s also likely the video is illegal.

Under current federal aviation rules, using unmanned aircraft — what commonly are referred to as drones — for commercial purposes is prohibited in the United States.

Kunde officials dispute that’s what they are doing with Vino, the nickname for the remote-controlled device they bought for less than $1,000 online.

“We’re just filming our vineyards,” said Marcia Kunde Mickelson, the winery’s marketing communications manager.

Regardless, the winery’s drone illustrates how widespread their use has become and the challenges facing local, state and federal authorities as they try to craft regulations to deal with thousands more unmanned aircraft taking to the nation’s skies. By one estimate, there will be 30,000 drones whizzing and whirring above us by 2020.

Public and private agencies, as well as individuals, will be looking for guidance in the new rules, which are certain to test the boundaries of safety and civil liberties.

Drones are promoted as low-cost, low-risk tools for responding to natural disasters, searching for missing people, monitoring atmospheric events and optimizing agriculture. They also are feared as objects of spying, criminal activity and terrorist mayhem.

Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Noland, who conducted research into drones while taking an advanced police management course, raised the specter of “fly-by gang shootings” and other new crimes involving the use of drones.

“Why dig a tunnel to transport dope when you can fly it around and not get caught?” Noland said.

A winery using a drone to film vineyards seems benign by comparison. But Noland raised the example of paparazzi using unmanned aircraft to clandestinely film a celebrity’s wedding and then selling the images, something Noland said already is being done.

“It’s a bit like the New West,” he said of the nation’s unregulated air space.

President Barack Obama has given the Federal Aviation Administration until late 2015 to develop a long-term policy for bringing what officially are known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the nation’s skies.

Drones already are in widespread use around the country. Since 2007, the FAA has issued 1,428 permits for unmanned aircraft use. Of those, 327 were still active as of mid-February, according to a spokesman.

The permits were sought by universities, police departments and government agencies because under the current rules, private drone operations are banned except those involving “research and development, market surveys and crew training.”

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department has garnered headlines for attempting to become the first law enforcement agency in California to acquire a drone.

A sheriff’s department in Texas already has a 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone, which the department plans to use in SWAT operations. The drone reportedly can be outfitted with a grenade launcher and shotgun.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said he has not considered whether his department could use a drone. He said the sheriff’s helicopter — Henry 1 — is available to help with pursuits and with other tactical operations.

Freitas said sending the helicopter around the county on non-specific surveillance missions — something civil libertarians fear law enforcement will be tempted to do with drones — would not be a “very effective use of the helicopter’s or staff’s time.”

Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said it could be “very valuable” to have a drone that could transmit information in real-time during a law enforcement operation. He also acknowledged privacy concerns with the technology, saying “stringent controls would have to be in place” during their use.

“Is there an immediate need in the city of Santa Rosa for this new technology? My answer is, no, we’re able to be a pretty effective agency without it,” he said.

Noland, who presented his research on drones to the department’s brass, outlined a number of scenarios in which unmanned aircraft could prove beneficial to the police.

He said in the event of a shooter inside one of the city’s malls, a drone could be flown inside the building to relay information about the suspect’s whereabouts to officers.

“The technology is going to get so good that you are going to be able to type in the height, weight, race, hair color and clothing of the suspect and it (the drone) will only look for that person,” Noland said.

He described a different scenario — one that could apply to police or criminals — in which a drone is flown over someone’s house and then underneath a patio cover for access to a marijuana garden.

“I can understand people’s concerns for that type of flight,” he said. “That’s where the new type of regulations are going to come in.”

Cal Fire has worked with other agencies, including NASA, to test whether drones can be of benefit during wildfires. A spokesman said the fire agency has begun to move away from the technology because it was taking too long for computer programs to process information gathered by drones.

In addition to the federal efforts, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, has introduced a bill to regulate the aircraft in California. Lawmakers in at least 11 other states have drafted similar proposals.

Part of the effort involves simply defining what a drone is. The term implies something operating of its own accord, when in fact, these aircraft are almost always flown by humans, albeit from remote locations.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics argues that drones are not model aircraft because the latter are flown within the line of sight of, and under the control of, a pilot at all times.

Ray Marcinkowski, who works for Kunde in online marketing and pilots Vino, said he always has the device within visual range.

“There’s nothing automatic about it,” he said.

The name of the device — the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter — implies something different. The aircraft has a range of 984 feet and includes a GPS-enabled auto-pilot mode so that it can hover in place or return to its user’s last-known location, according to the manufacturer.

Mickelson said she believes the winery is on solid legal footing with the drone because it’s only capturing images from winery property.

The videos are uploaded to a public YouTube channel and to the winery’s Facebook page as a promotion for wine club members.

Nevertheless, Mickelson referred to the videos as a “private use.”

Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman, said that if someone uses unmanned aircraft to shoot videos or photos that will be used for promotional purposes, “the purpose of the operation would appear to be commercial, and commercial use of UAS is not allowed under current rules.”

He said the agency typically sends cease-and-desist letters to people who are flouting the rules.

Marcinkowski said if it turns out that what Kunde is doing is illegal, “of course we’ll stop doing it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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18 Responses to “As drone use rises, so does concern”

  1. Kathy Robler says:

    I favor drones following groups of bicyclists with printed citations ready to drop on any biker who blocks traffic, runs a stop sign or flips off drivers.

    Who needs bike license plates with the right technology.

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  2. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Just wait till the micro air vehicle (MAV) become more available. You’ll never look at dragonflies the same way ever again. If Honeywell develops the drone bee, watch out! Those will be very hard to shoot down with you gun. You’ll need a strong flyswatter to get those little guys.

    Projected robotics timeline (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_of_robotics)

    2013-2014: agricultural robots, Japan NISTEP 2030 report
    2013-2017: robots that care for the elderly, Japan NISTEP 2030 report
    2015: one third of US fighting strength will be composed of robots, US Department of Defense (2006)
    2015-2020: every South Korean and many European households will have a robot, The Ministry of Information and Communication, South Korea (2007)
    2017: medical robots performing low-invasive surgery, Japan NISTEP 2030 report
    2017-2019: household robots with full use, Japan NISTEP 2030 report
    2018: robots will routinely carry out surgery, South Korea government (2007)
    2019-2021: Nanorobots, , Japan NISTEP 2030 report
    2022:intelligent robots that sense their environment, make decisions, and learn are used in 30% of households and organizations, TechCast
    2030: robots capable of performing at human level at most manual jobs, Marshall Brain, founder of HowStuffWorks
    2034: robots (home automation systems) performing most household tasks, Helen Greiner, Chairman of iRobot
    2035: first completely autonomous robot soldiers in operation, US Department of Defense (2006)
    2050: robot “brains” based on computers that execute 100 trillion instructions per second will start rivaling human intelligence

    “If you don’t want a generation of robots, fund the arts!” ~Cath Crowley

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  3. Paul says:

    Response to MOCKINGBIRD: Like that’s (A LAW!)gonna stop anybody. You ever walk outside at midnight on New Year’s Eve? This new drone killing sport will be far more entertaining, and law or no, the general population is unlikely to “snitch”, given the lack of popularity this whole drone concept has.
    TIP: You want to make it ONE good shot. It’s near impossible to track a single random shot’s report.
    Happy sky hunting!

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  4. Follower says:

    As we begin to “write the book” on Domestic Drone Policy lets think ahead. Where is this technology going? What capabilities will Drones have in 20 years?
    What was your favorite smart phone app in 1993?

    Do I believe a Drone will be outside my window watching me eat dinner?
    Maybe not today …but tomorrow?

    In 20 years you may be hard pressed to tell the difference between a bumble bee and a Drone. Lets not base any new laws on the assumption that Drones will always be expensive, big and loud.

    Burglars with Drones?
    Car Thieves with Drones?
    Rapists with Drones?
    Tyrants with Drones?
    Nixon with Drones?
    J. Edgar Hoover with Drones?

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  5. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    The paparazzi are gonna love these things! Unfortunate for Tom.

    I’ve been… chased by paparazzi, and they run lights, and they chase you and harass you the whole time. It happens all over the world, and it has certainly gotten worse. You don’t know what it’s like being chased by them. ~Tom Cruise

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  6. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons. ~R. Buckminster Fuller

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  7. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Lovefor Dagame-thanks for reminding the drivers that they are being recorded. As a walker I have trouble getting across the street from all the redlight runners. Have any of you tried to cross the street in front of the Santa Rosa COSTCO. I’m waiting to cross, the light changes and at least 6 cars roll through the redlight. Good thing I didn’t step off the curb.

    Hey, IDEA!. Maybe I should get that helmet with the camera.

    Drivers’ beware! You are being watched. Time to start driving defensively OR ELSE!!!

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  8. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Paul, bad news. It’s against the law to fire a gun or pellet gun within the city limits.

    I’m going to get worried if our neighborhood peeping Tom gets one. Otherwise, I don’t care because I have nothing to hide.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  9. Snarky says:

    To “The Answer”:

    The line between a toy and government surveillance is pretty clear to all but the idiots around us.

    The toy is used by recreational civilians whether it has a camera on board or not. An example would be the hundreds of people across the USA who use kites and radio controlled planes to video, for a fee, your wedding reception, or your outdoor wine event. Its a toy… or its a toy being used for a business activity.

    Surveillance is another matter. Surveillance by an arrogant out of control government is what you need to fear.

    Just look at the category of “Brady Officers” that we keep hearing about recently. Who knew that cops who LIE are allowed to keep their jobs? They are assigned a “Brady” status… which only comes up in a court hearing. But you notice it never is revealed when that documented liar cop writes you a citation that you know was unjustified.

    That is the danger of a government drone. It can be just another tool by an out of control government that keeps its dirty laundry secret… just as the “Brady Cop” lists are kept secret.

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  10. Lovefor Dagame says:

    What about all the cyclists who will now be recording video of everything and everybody with their helmet-cams and cell phones for the new statute? Unless they have permission to film all the individuals they encounter will that also be illegal surveillance? This is a toy helicopter with a lightweight camera being used to film the Kunde vineyards, not a military drone with weapons, not a police drone on a clandestine mission. All the examples being brought up about misuse have nothing in common outside of the fact that a remote control device is being used. The police already have robot vehicles that have video cameras, so what’s the deal here? If drones are outlawed, only outlaws will have drones, right? Sounds like another issue that gets blown out of proportion that we’ve heard a lot about lately…

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  11. Van says:

    So much for nude sunbathing. Oh well, that’s what guns are for…….protecting our property and our privacy in addition to a tyrannical government.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  12. Skippy says:

    “The Police are such cowards that they won’t go stop active shooters ? Really ? Maybe they should have more ‘bravery classes’ for our Police.”
    It’s worse than you think.
    When we all watched the Columbine SWAT team live on TV as they tiptoed slo-mo up the back steps long after the shooters were dead, we should have known then that modern police work was just a pension game. Number One police priority is everybody goes home safe at shift’s end? Then go work for Social Services. Cops used to be required to have onions.

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  13. Steveguy says:

    What bothers me the most is the Police think.

    “He described a different scenario — one that could apply to police or criminals — in which a drone is flown over someone’s house and then underneath a patio cover for access to a marijuana garden.”

    What the heck ?


    ” He said in the event of a shooter inside one of the city’s malls, a drone could be flown inside the building to relay information about the suspect’s whereabouts to officers. ”
    —– Really ? The Police are such cowards that they won’t go stop active shooters ? Really ? Maybe they should have more ‘bravery classes’ for our Police.

    Besides, as a kid we flew kites and triggered cameras for aerial pics. And agriculture could use the tool for proper watering, and they use different wavelengths than visual.

    Be aware of the Police abusing the use, be very aware. Vineyard use is OK by me.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  14. Carrel says:

    “Where does the line between a toy and a surveilance aircraft begin and end?”

    That would be with the camera.

    “Model” aircraft don’t have them, surveilance aircraft do.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  15. Matthew Hayward says:

    U.S. citizens can already be watched by satellites. Do people really believe a drone will be outside their window watching them eat dinner?

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  16. Paul says:

    The Answer: It ENDS with your neighborhood duck hunter. Need I explain?
    These drones better fly damn high or they’re gonna be the new sport.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  17. James Bennett says:

    Can you say tech-noc-racy boys and girls?

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  18. The Answer says:

    Where does the line between a toy and a survellance aircraft begin and end?

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

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