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Drone soars over vineyards, but is it legal?

  • Ray Marcinkowski, the online marketing director for Vintage Wine Estates, holds a Quad Copter, in which he mounts a Go-Pro camera to to shoot video for Kunde Family Estate. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

The YouTube video begins with a soaring journey above century-old magnolia trees that lead from Highway 12 into Kenwood's Kunde Family Estate.

Winemaker Zach Long describes the estate's wines as the aerial tour continues over hillside vineyards that produce each varietal.

The images are lovely, the production slick. It's also likely the video is illegal.

Under current federal aviation rules, using unmanned aircraft -- what commonly are referred to as drones -- for commercial purposes is prohibited in the United States.

Kunde officials dispute that's what they are doing with Vino, the nickname for the remote-controlled device they bought for less than $1,000 online.

"We're just filming our vineyards," said Marcia Kunde Mickelson, the winery's marketing communications manager.

Regardless, the winery's drone illustrates how widespread their use has become and the challenges facing local, state and federal authorities as they try to craft regulations to deal with thousands more unmanned aircraft taking to the nation's skies. By one estimate, there will be 30,000 drones whizzing and whirring above us by 2020.

Public and private agencies, as well as individuals, will be looking for guidance in the new rules, which are certain to test the boundaries of safety and civil liberties.

Drones are promoted as low-cost, low-risk tools for responding to natural disasters, searching for missing people, monitoring atmospheric events and optimizing agriculture. They also are feared as objects of spying, criminal activity and terrorist mayhem.

Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Noland, who conducted research into drones while taking an advanced police management course, raised the specter of "fly-by gang shootings" and other new crimes involving the use of drones.

"Why dig a tunnel to transport dope when you can fly it around and not get caught?" Noland said.

A winery using a drone to film vineyards seems benign by comparison. But Noland raised the example of paparazzi using unmanned aircraft to clandestinely film a celebrity's wedding and then selling the images, something Noland said already is being done.

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