La Jolla Town Council examines ups and downs of drones

Community meetings in San Diego have been known to drone on, but none ever has quite done it like the La Lolla Town Council’s (LJTC) on Nov. 8.

The meeting was dedicated almost entirely to demystifying unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). It even began with an hour-long, catered flying demonstration by professional drone aviator Vince Stanley, who answered questions from onlookers while flying his $1,200 GI Phantom 3 Pro around the Rec Center grounds.

“Rather than sit around and complain about the smell of the sea lions and the broken sidewalks, I thought it would be fun to learn about something,” said LJTC president Ann Kerr Bache after calling the meeting to order.

It was a timely topic, too, as the City of San Diego was recently selected as one of 10 awardees — out of hundreds of applicants — for the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program. That means the FAA will allow the City to try a number of experimental new drone concepts before almost any other U.S. municipality — including night operations, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight and package delivery.

Drone ups

Presentations by drone experts illuminated the many tasks for which drones are preferable to humans.

Egbert Oostburg, founder of Drone Aviator, a San Diego software film catering to the drone industry, noted that drones can observe problems with electrical towers and light poles and perform search-and-rescue missions.

“Anywhere you can send a drone instead of a person,” Oostburg said, describing drones as one of a “very few things that can really change how we do life.”

San Diego Fire-Rescue captain Jeff Ring, who has managed the department’s UAS program from 2016 said drones are useful for firefighting and dismantling bombs. (In fact, the department’s UAS program originally began as a division of the bomb squad.)

“UASes are starting to be used a lot in brush fires,” Ring said, noting that his department has nine, with two Aeryon SkyRangers arriving in the next few days. These sophisticated aircraft, which cost $80,000 each, feature forward-facing infrared and can fly in the rain, in 40 mph wind and, of course, through fires.

“Robots are something we’re comfortable with using,” Ring said, noting that his department will soon have the capability to broadcast drone video from fires “to any internet-capable device that we grant access to in the world, so this is going to get this info out to the people making the decisions in real time.”

Harrison Pierce, coordinator of San Diego’s Homeland Security Office, added two more drone uses to that list during his statement: inspecting vehicles while they wait on line to cross the U.S. border northbound from Mexico; thereby cutting down traffic, and making medical deliveries that could save lives.

“Most hospitals have a threshold of a certain amount of tests to perform before they can drive all the tests back to the lab,” Pierce said. “One solution we thought of is delivering specimens individually straight from urgent care to the test lab.”

La Jolla Town Council members listen to experts extoll the virtues of drones and warn about their potential for misuse.
La Jolla Town Council members listen to experts extoll the virtues of drones and warn about their potential for misuse. COREY LEVITAN

Drone downs

Of course, every beneficial technology brings with it the potential for misuse, which we saw when a drone knocked out power to 1,600 in Mountain View, Calif. by crashing into a high-voltage wire last year. (San Diegans may also remember that drone that crash-landed at Petco Park last year, which narrowly missed hitting a man and his son.)

Pierce drew audible gasps from the audience when he noted that some drones have been caught transporting illegal drugs and weapons over the border from Mexico.

“We already have Border Patrol and Homeland Security on top of it, and they’ve been largely successful,” Pierce said, “but we want to stomp it down and make sure it doesn’t grow.”

Then there’s “the worst scenario of all,” as Oostburg labeled it. “Imagine walking into your daughter’s bedroom, and seeing a drone hovering outside.” (If you think a drone is invading your privacy, that’s illegal in the City and justifies a call to the San Diego Police Department.)

Stiff fine

Last month, Oostburg said, the FAA passed a budget requiring all drone users to register their units before flying them — including the child who gets a drone for Christmas and is too excited to do anything else after unwrapping it but go outside and fly.

“How do we assure little Jimmy, when he gets his drone from Costco, is following the rules?” Pierce asked. “There really isn’t a way. But we have other layers, like accountability. Fortunately, a lot of the drone community is self-governed they don’t want to see one person ruin it for everyone else.”

That doesn’t seem to be good enough for the FAA, which Oostburg reported has set a steep fine for anyone caught flying an unregistered drone: $27,000.

Just for his little spin around the Rec Center, in fact, Stanley — who carries drone liability insurance — prepped by touching base with two nearby airport towers and the Torrey Pines Gliderport to let them know his intentions. (He wasn’t legally required to, but he didn’t want any problems in the crowded airspace above La Jolla.)

Finally, during public comment, marine biologist and drone pilot Alicia Amerson issued a warning to the panel about the unknown impact on wildlife of all these drones buzzing around.

“We’re going to be invading the space of nesting birds,” she said. “So I think part of the message here is, as we look at all of the benefits to humans, there are also some drawbacks — just to think a little about about these birds in your backyards.”

Also at Town Council…

• The board unanimously approved temporary street closures and no-parking areas for 39th annual Kiwanis Club-sponsored La Jolla Half Marathon, culminating at Scripps Park on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

• Bache said she was hopeful the next short-term vacation rental regulations would be ready for a City Council vote “by early next year, if not sooner.”

• Community activist Phyllis Minnick invited the board and audience members to Children’s Pool, 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9 to view the grand opening of her Children’s Pool Plaza Project.

— La Jolla Town Council next meets 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13 at the La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St.