San Diego City Council committee backs drone regulations

SAN DIEGO — Regulations that would allow local agencies to enforce safe operations of drone aircraft in San Diego were given unanimous initial backing Wednesday by the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee.

The proposed amendments to the municipal code would allow local police to enforce Federal Aviation Administration rules governing so-called “unmanned aerial vehicles.” According to Tiffany Vinson of the city’s Homeland Security office, local authorities don’t currently have such power.

The rules stem in part from a proliferation of drones in the skies above San Diego. Staff cited a projection by the U.S. Air Force that UAV operations would surpass manned aircraft flights by 2025.

If approved by the full City Council, the proposed law would prohibit careless or reckless operations of drone aircraft, violations of FAA flight restrictions or operations that inhibit law enforcement officers, firefighters or other emergency rescue activities.

Offenses would be prosecuted as misdemeanors or citations, and the City Attorney’s Office would have the discretionary power depending on whether an incident was willful or simply operator error.

Vinson and committee Chairman Chris Cate said the intent was only to promote safety, and not hinder growing commercial and recreational uses.

Councilman Chris Ward said the vast majority of drone operators perform their work or hobby in a responsible manner, and expressed concern that the proposed rules are subjective.

“I am actually more worried about any members of the public who might be annoyed or otherwise hate drones and see this new law as an opportunity to go out there and get neighbors and really compound the challenges for our public safety responders to be able to decide — do I enforce, do I not enforce, do I show up?” Ward said.

The rules don’t address privacy concerns, which staff said was best left to existing law.

The legislation is the product of a working group formed in 2015. The group, made up of representatives of the police and fire departments and other municipal agencies, studied federal and state rules, plus local ordinances already adopted in Poway, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Pittsburgh.

According to staff, there have been three significant drone-related incidents in the skies above the San Diego region in recent years — one in which a UAV came within a few hundred feet of an airliner approaching Lindbergh Field, another in which one came within 100 feet of a light aircraft and a third in which a drone buzzed between gates at Lindbergh Field.

In 2015, the FAA reported 15 encounters between drones and commercial, military or private aircraft in a six-month period in San Diego. The incidents generally occurred while the airplanes were taking off or landing.

FAA regulations require drone hobbyists to provide prior notification to airport and air traffic control officials before flying within five miles of an airfield. Operators are also supposed to keep the unmanned aircraft within sight at all times, yield to manned airplanes and stay within an altitude of 400 feet above ground level.

The FAA report on San Diego encounters said many of the incidents took place at altitudes of 2,000 feet or higher.

Vinson said the law could serve as a model for other local jurisdictions, so that drone operators would have uniform rules instead of a patchwork between various cities.