Jordan Tolentino is your normal Santa Maria teenager with a busy schedule. Standing at 5 feet 11 inches, he’s a linebacker on the varsity football team at St. Joseph High School, a member of both the National Honor Society and 4-H, and president of the Underwater Robotics Club. He also builds drones from spare parts.
The 17-year-old senior is entrenched in a rigorous schedule of college preparation. But during his free time, he’s locked away in his room tinkering with what will eventually become remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as drones. He orders parts online and pays for his expensive hobby by selling pigs at 4-H auctions.
“In a way,” he joked, “I kind of make pigs fly.”
Since he’s been a remote control hobbyist for years, the transition into UAVs was natural for Tolentino. It took him nearly six months to build his first flying machine when he was a sophomore, and he’s since perfected the craft.
Anyone, really, can build a UAV, and the technology is proliferating quickly. Photography, filming, agriculture, law enforcement, and delivery services are just a handful of the fields in which UAV capability can be applied. Companies and agencies across the Central Coast are clamoring to get in on the California drone rush—and lawmakers and advocates are taking notice.
The future is here
On Feb. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long-awaited proposed rules on commercial drone use. The regulations would allow operators to fly drones weighing up to 55 pounds during daylight hours, within line of sight, no faster than 100 miles per hour and less than 500 feet above ground. The operator must also be at least 17 years old and pass an aeronautics test.
The newly proposed FAA rules are currently in the middle of a public comment period that expires in April. Although they will apply nationwide, the regulations also leave states the room to devise their own rules for drones.
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said she believes California’s privacy laws need to be strengthened against drones, and her reasoning comes from personal experience.
She had an unexpected firsthand encounter with a drone in December 2014 while vacationing in Hawaii. She was having some morning coffee with her husband in the backyard of their home when a flying drone came buzzing over the property line. It hovered for about three minutes, staring “eyeball to eyeball” with her husband from 15 to 20 feet away, she said.
A little shocked at the invasion of their personal space, both Jackson and her husband followed the drone as it flew away. The operator turned out to be a friendly—albeit curious—neighbor from a few houses down. The thought of a high-tech Peeping Tom didn’t sit well with Jackson.
“It was a startling invasion of privacy,” she told the Sun. “There are really no provisions that address this technology in situations like this.”
The unnerving experience inspired Jackson to write Senate Bill 142, legislation that seeks to amend the state’s privacy laws to include drones. Introduced on Jan. 26, the bill calls for trespassing charges if a UAV crosses a private property line up to about 400 feet in the air, which is below federally recognized (and therefore, federally regulated) navigable airspace.
But this is where things begin to get complex.
Greg McNeal is a professor of law at Pepperdine University and has written extensively about public policy regarding drone use. He said Jackson’s bill would basically be unenforceable the way it’s written. In a Forbes article written on Feb. 16, McNeal explained that the FAA definition of navigable airspace is “anywhere an aircraft can operate,” which includes the space immediately off the ground.
Since drones are also considered to be aircraft, McNeal believes that drones flying above someone’s property aren’t trespassing because they’re within that navigable airspace allowed by federal law. McNeal said he agrees with the bill’s approach to what he believes is extending property lines to the air, but he argued that Jackson is using the wrong terminology.
“She simply can’t make reference to ‘navigable airspace,’” McNeal told the Sun. “Drones will be authorized to fly from the ground up to 500 feet.”
The solutions to this quandary of verbiage, McNeal said, are to strike out navigable airspace and designate a minimum height drones could be regulated to at the state level.
“I think 350 feet is the right altitude,” McNeal said.
Jackson acknowledges McNeal’s issue with her bill, and said she is still working out the details of her legislation. The bill is still currently being discussed in committee.
While Jackson fights for privacy rights, two other state senators want to give police the power to use drones in emergency situations.
State Sens. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) and Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) introduced SB 262 on Feb. 18, which would specifically give a law enforcement agency the power to use UAVs, as long as doing so complies with the Fourth Amendment.
The California Police Chiefs Association, whose board of directors includes San Luis Obispo Police Department Chief Stephen Gesell, is backing the bill.
San Luis Obispo Police Capt. Chris Staley, who commands the countywide Special Weapons and Tactics team, has been tracking the technology and wants it for tactical and surveillance uses during standoffs.
“We definitely think it could give us an advantage in those situations—if not give us real-time information of, let’s say, what a backyard would look like,” Staley said, adding that police are still waiting for more guidance on drone use. “We’re just kind of waiting to see how it shakes out before we go down that road.”
Other police agencies on the Central Coast also want in on the drone action. Kelly Hoover, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency is currently exploring the use of unmanned aerial systems for different capabilities, namely for “threat assessment during a critical incident.”
The prospect of police drones can evoke a sense of Orwellian paranoia in some people. Anderson and Galgiani’s bill, despite the written-in promise of protections for civil liberties, may not go far enough to satisfy everybody.
“It’s a null statement,” said Jeremy Gillula, a staff member with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for technological civil liberties. “Police already have to comply with the Constitution.”
Although the bill mentions protections against unreasonable searches and seizures guaranteed by both the U.S. and California constitutions, Gillula contends that language specifically requiring police to obtain a warrant should also be written into the bill.
Sen. Anderson still thinks the bill is sufficient. In an email to the Sun, he writes that SB 262 “balances innovative technologies with the Fourth Amendment” and “forces unmanned aircraft systems not to exceed current laws.”
“They should put in the bill that you need a warrant and you need probable cause,” Gillula emphasized, adding that a bill such as AB 1327 would have been better.
Republican Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, who represents the state’s 44th District in Ventura County, introduced AB 1327 in February 2014. It would have generally prohibited public agencies from using UAVs, except for certain exceptions. The bill also would have subjected any data collected via UAV, including images and footage, to California public records laws.
AB 1327 didn’t make it, though. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in September 2014.
Gillula also takes issue with Jackson’s bill, saying it’s way too vague and doesn’t include provisions for drones that have nothing to do with surveillance.
“If someone wanted to do air quality monitoring,” Gillula said, “it would have to fly above someone’s house, even if it doesn’t have any cameras.”
Don’t call it a drone, man
A drone is essentially a remote-controlled aircraft, but calling that machine a “drone” can be a bit contentious. Enthusiasts prefer to use either the term UAV, FPV (first person view—with the camera attached), or UAS (unmanned aerial system), which encompasses the vehicle and the control system.
The distinction comes in terminology, according to Ryan Jenkins, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cal Poly who studies the ethics of emerging technologies. A radio-controlled aircraft with a specific purpose, be it altruistic or commercial, would be considered a drone or UAV.
When people think of drones, he explained, they typically picture something that can fly—but that’s not always the case. The term can encompass much more than aerial machines, and pinpointing a definition is a big deal, he said.
“It’s becoming increasingly important now because aircraft that are fully autonomous are being developed, and it’s a very hot topic,” he said. “You are starting to see things that are living up to the label of drone with the military and ethicists.”
He refers to remotely piloted, autonomous vehicles being developed for use in places other than the air. In January 2014, the U.S. Navy announced a type of underwater gliding drone that uses a process called hydraulic buoyancy. The Navy awarded a $203,731 contract to the Massachusetts-based company Teledyne Benthos to develop the technology.
But is it a drone or a robot?
“That’s the problem,” Jenkins said. “When you say ‘drone,’ people think of a robot. I think [of] a drone as something you can give a pre-programmed order without any sort of human oversight. That’s why it’s important that the drones the military’s using always have a human at the switch.”
Jason Lee owns and operates Sky Pirate, a shop in Pismo Beach that sells, among other things, drones. He said that many enthusiasts take issue with the word because it evokes images of the hunter-killer Predator UAVs used by the Air Force. Despite this connotation, he still uses the term.
“It’s what everyone’s using,” he said. “That’s what I’m using.”
Leading the research
In the Cal Poly aerospace engineering department, professor Aaron Drake uses the term unmanned aircraft to refer to flying drones. He’s leading what he calls the “applications of autonomous flight initiative,” the purpose of which is to bring more research and content into the curriculum, he said. Drake has decades of experience in the development of unmanned aircraft.
The field is nothing new, he explained, but the biggest recent advancement has come from how the machines are controlled.
“Unmanned aircraft have been around since the 1920s,” Drake said, but the guidance and control aspects have been very rudimentary.
“The biggest advancement has come from the control side,” he said. “In the last couple of decades, you’ve been able to install sophisticated computerized controls.”
On the more practical side, a team of Cal Poly students developed something they call the “SkyBarge,” a UAV that took second place at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Student Design Competition held in November in Montreal.
At this year’s competition, the purpose was to build a fire-fighting UAV that can drop a payload and maneuver through an obstacle course. Looking like something out of a Jules Verne novel, the SkyBarge is constructed with aluminum, foam, electronic parts, and several feet of PVC piping; the green and yellow rectangular-shaped aircraft flies with eight propellers. It takes several hours to assemble, said SkyBarge project team leader Gordon Belyea. Starting in November 2013, the project took him and his team several months to design and build.
“There wasn’t necessarily an interest in drones, but this competition has given me a better appreciation for them,” Belyea said, adding that he’s dedicating his senior project to drone research.
The Wild West
Research and proposed regulations are evidence of the increasing popularity of drones and the applications they can be used for. Business is booming for entrepreneur and Santa Ynez-based pilot Chris Kunkle owns AeroOptix, a company that provides UAV aerial photography.
Kunkle’s company lands several jobs each week to film and photograph weddings, houses, and commercials.
“We’ve been getting really busy, four to five projects a week,” he said. “Everything is word of mouth so far.”
While Kunkle is busy using his aerial vehicle to bring in revenue, Santa Maria teen-drone enthusiast Tolentino tests his homebuilt tri-copter at the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo grounds. The machine weighs only 3 pounds, but it’s packed with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, including a GoPro camera, a transmitter, several microchips he programmed himself, and a battery—which is the heaviest component. It whizzes above the heads of onlookers and swoops to the ground, whipping up a small cloud of dust. The camera beams an image from the drone to an LCD screen on the ground.
Building drones is just a hobby for Tolentino for the most part, although he’s landed a few roof-inspection jobs. Ken Parker, Tolentino’s grandfather, said a friend of his with the California Department of Oil and Gas wanted to enlist his grandson’s help to use a drone for inspecting oil well pump jacks, but the offer never solidified.
Tolentino thinks the newly proposed FAA rules are a “smart move”—as long as they don’t keep people from doing what they love.
For Sky Pirate’s Lee, the FAA’s proposed regulations could be “workable.” With UAVs selling for as little as $40 in his shop, anybody could buy one with their own purpose in mind.
“You got to have rules,” he said. “It can’t just be a free-for-all.”
Contact Staff Writer David Minsky at [email protected].