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Buzzing Around Town, Salinas Plans to Use Drones

November 9 Update: Salinas city leaders approved and adopted the Unmanned Aerial Systems Policy on November 7, 2017.  

Drones are increasingly being used by city governments for things like land surveying and storm damage assessments. Locally, Salinas plans to be an early adopter of the technology.  But first the city wants to get the community on board.  

The sun peaks just after lunchtime at Natividad Creek Park. It’s the largest public park in Salinas. There’s a patchy field with a row of trees along the back. Just above, one drone with flashing lights buzzes overhead.

Standing below in the middle of the field is Tony Cardoza. He wears a bright, yellow vest and a white hard hat. He’s holding the controller.

“I love my job. I never thought I’d be doing this,” says Cardoza.

Cardoza is a GIS Technician for the City of Salinas. GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems.  He helps collect, manage and analyze geographic data. He says the drone is changing the way he surveys land.

“It’s another view. Usually we have to wait for planes to fly over for us to get imagery,” Cardoza says.

And that’s expensive.

“But with this, we can just go out and fly and get it ourselves. Or get videos. It really changes everything about GIS.”

He’s using the drone to collect a series of aerial photographs of the park. Its specialized camera can detect details on the ground they human eye can’t see, like fungal problems in the grass or trees. Cardoza will use his computer to stitch the photos together to make a virtual model of the land he’s surveying.

The City of Salinas secured permission to fly from the Federal Aviation Administration this summer. But before fully implementing the technology, it wants to have an official drone policy in place; one that is supported by residents.

So the city is holding community meetings to get feedback from the public on the proposed policy. So far, the number one concern has been privacy. David Mack, who has lived in Salinas his entire life, attended the second meeting at Salinas City Hall.

“Personally I don’t have privacy concerns, but I could see how if there was a drone flying over neighborhoods, people would have those concerns,” Mack said.  

So Mack suggested that the city alerts neighborhoods before they fly over them.

“I think that there’s a value to that, to ease concerns over spying by the government," he added.

GIS Administrator Eric Sandoval worked on the city’s proposed policy.   

“We have it specifically in our policy.  We’re not police.  We’re not enforcement,” says Sandoval.

He says the purpose of drone use is to help Salinas’ Departments of Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and Community Development.

The technology could be used to get a bird’s eye view of problematic road intersections, for roof inspections, or storm damage assessments. Sandoval wishes they had the drone back in February. That’s when a windstorm downed more than 600 trees in Salinas.

“We could have been taking photographs from an aerial standpoint at a higher elevation to get an encompassing view of the overall damage that occurred to the city to make a really strong application for adequate funding from FEMA, which would have been a lot more efficient than having people walking around trying to take pictures here and there of a downed tree, or a crushed house,” says Sandoval.

What Salinas wants to do is already happening in other parts of the country. The FAA issued more than 300 authorizations for drone operators after recent hurricanes.  

“You’re just going to see more and more of this so yeah it’s the wave of the future. It’s already here,” Sandoval says.

The Salinas City Council will vote on the proposed drone policy on November 7. The third community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, October 18 at 6:15 p.m. in the Cesar Chavez Library. 

Overall, the city is leading the way when it comes to implementing drone technology in the Monterey Bay Area.

For this story, KAZU reached out to the municipalities that make up Monterey and Santa Cruz County. Of those that responded, Santa Cruz is the only other city working on a policy. Leaders there hope to have one developed and ready to implement by the beginning of next year.

Marina has discussed the possibility, but said it’s not a high priority. Greenfield has as well but said daily high winds in the valley would be a challenge. And Monterey said due to their proximity to the airport, there would be safety challenges. 

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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