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Under the Radar: The city cannot track the drones it owns. Or that someone stole. 

Wednesday, Feb 18 2015

Last month, SF Weekly broke the story that, yes, San Francisco owns a squadron of drones. This information came to light when the city's Recreation and Park Department filed a police report which, embarrassingly, revealed that a department-owned quadcopter equipped with a GoPro camera and valued at $3,000 had been jacked from a park worker's car.

The Recreation and Park Department says this loss left the city with eight drones — which is still plenty enough to fly in the missing wingman formation. But these won't be flying anytime soon. Per Rec and Park, the drones, which were obtained for $19,000 total, won't be operated until the city formulates policy regarding drone usage. The city's abortive foray into The Drone Age constituted just one of these quadcopters being buzzed around briefly in a training run.

An SF Weekly public records request inquiring just how many drones this city owns was, this month, returned by the City Administrator's Office. After scouring its voluminous records, it could not identify any drones beyond the ones the city admittedly owns.

And yet, even these drones didn't show up in the city administrator's search. And that's because, per Proposition Q, city agencies and departments aren't required to submit purchasing orders for goods and services less than $10,000 to competitive bidding, where they could be scrutinized by the city administrator.

Rather, per city documentation, individual departments are charged with exercising "good judgment" — which the city put in quote marks, not us — when pulling the trigger on these sub-$10,000 purchases.

The $19,000 worth of Rec and Park drones, bought in several batches ("good judgment"), flew under the city administrator's radar. What's more, the city's central purchasing office cannot retroactively go through and find proof of purchase of the drones we know were purchased — and, subsequently, stolen.

While drones are an edgy new technology, the city's inventory system, at more than 25 years old, is not. Since a line item would all but certainly not be labeled "drone purchase," nixing the possibility of an automated search, we're told the staff was forced to pore through paper records by hand in its futile quest to unearth drone purchases.

In the end, the only surefire way to locate a drone paper trail would be to submit a public records request to each and every city department and agency in hopes of turning up those sub-$10,000 purchases.

We chose not to make these requests, lest we embody a secondary definition of the term "drone": "One who lives on the labors of others. A parasite."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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