The next time the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's bomb squad responds to a call, it could have new gadgets at its disposal: drones.
The department received two new Aeryon SkyRanger drones in mid-December, and bomb squad members have been using them in simulations recently, a city official said last week. The drones are expected to be used the next time the specialized unit is called on to check out a potential threat.
San Diego's fire department — specifically its bomb squad — is the only public safety agency in the city authorized to use drones, and can do so only on a limited basis, according to Tiffany Vinson, San Diego's homeland security coordinator. Under similarly narrow rules, the Chula Vista Police Department also began using drones in late October.
The use of the devices by the two public safety agencies is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, which involves cities and government agencies around the country, and partnerships with leading technology companies, to develop best-use practices for commercial drones.
San Diego was one of 10 cities and agencies selected to participate in the pilot program last May. The other nine cities and agencies chosen include the city of Reno, an Alaskan university, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma and several states' transportation departments.
Four times a year, the program participants submit reports to the Federal Aviation Administration. The experiences of the test agencies will help decide how the FAA will update its rules for drone usage.
In San Diego, the three-year testing program is focused on five areas: international commerce and border security; medical delivery; smart city and autonomous vehicle interoperability; package delivery; and public safety.
Vinson, who is heading up the local program, said companies like Uber, through its Uber Eats program, could use drones on certain fixed routes to deliver food as early as this summer. Plans are also in the works to use San Diego as a test site for Uber Elevate, the company's futuristic-sounding plan to use autonomous drones as flying taxis.
But while many of the proposed uses for drones are still in the planning, research or development phases, the devices are expected to have a more immediate impact in the public safety sector.
Chula Vista police began using the drones Oct. 22, and less than five days later had used drones to respond to 30 emergency calls that led to three arrests, including one on suspicion of felony domestic violence.
The department's drones have to stay within a one-mile radius of police headquarters on Fourth Avenue while a trained pilot stands on the police station's roof. The drones are not supposed to leave the pilots' line of sight.
While Chula Vista police are using what Vinson described as "off-the-shelf DJI drones," the San Diego Fire-Rescue bomb squad ordered the larger, more technical SkyRangers, which are specifically designed for public safety agencies. The SkyRangers have more powerful cameras "to get to the level of fine detail a bomb technician would need," Vinson said.
Last month, city officials asked residents to share their thoughts and concerns about the use of drones in an online survey.
Vinson said much of the feedback so far has centered on privacy and safety concerns.
Those concerns echo the ones held by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Chloe Triplett, a policy advocate for the local ACLU chapter, said many members of the public see drones as a future tool for public surveillance.
"We don't disagree that drones have a lot of beneficial uses, like in mapping, search-and-rescue missions and scientific research," Triplett said. "But if deployed without proper regulations and oversight, drones equipped with facial recognition software and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations could obviously cause a serious invasion of privacy rights."
Triplett said all city drone policies — including what type of data they collect, and how it is retained — need to be clear and open to the public.
"Basic transparency is key," Triplett said.
Vinson said such privacy concerns were exactly why the Fire Department's use of drones will be so narrowly focused on the bomb squad, and why the San Diego Police Department is not involved in any way.
"We don't want to invade anyone's privacy," Vinson said. "That's not smart, and more importantly, not legal."
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