Hobbyists invited to fly a drone in City Council chambers

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During the National League playoffs, a drone was seen flying over the crowd at Wrigley Field while a helicopter tracked its movements. The same thing could happen Thursday in the City Council chambers — minus the helicopter.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he has invited drone hobbyist groups to fly a drone inside the chambers during an Aviation Committee hearing on his proposal to ban drones within 5 miles of O’Hare and Midway airports and require operators to register their drones and carry insurance.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), who co-sponsored the drone crackdown, has a flair for headline-grabbing theatrics. When Burke’s staff sent out a notice about Thursday’s indoor demonstration, reporters assumed Burke had dreamed up the PR stunt.

But Waguespack said Wednesday the demonstration was his idea.

“I did invite them. I thought it would be interesting for them to do a demonstration. They have a couple of smaller drones that can actually roll on the ground. They have several different types to show people,” Waguespack said.

“When we were thinking of drones originally, it was that it could be an invasion of privacy. We were concerned drones would be everywhere with no relief. But we’re finding a lot more [legitimate] uses coming on line. This will show people that drone user groups are not breaking any rules that already exist. They’re just everyday kind of guys using them like old-day hobbyists with airplanes and helicopters. They want to come in and show people that they’re just hobbyists and not out there doing anything nefarious.”

Two years ago, Chicago Supt. Garry McCarthy raised eyebrows by telling aldermen he was intrigued by the idea of using unmanned drones to fight crime instead of buying more helicopters.

That prompted Waguespack to try to get ahead of the curve by introducing a pair of ordinances, one imposing a five-year moratorium on drones in Chicago, the other restricting their use.

Both ordinances were grounded.

Four months ago, Waguespack tried again, this time with Burke as his powerful partner.

Instead of a citywide moratorium, the aldermen drew a 5-mile ring around O’Hare and Midway. Drones would be banned within that restricted airspace as well as within one-quarter mile of a school, hospital, open-air stadium or place of worship.

Unmanned aircraft also would be prohibited between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.; during inclement weather; outside the line of sight of the operator or higher than 400 feet above ground level.

The ordinance also would prohibit drones equipped with a firearm or other weapon and drones launched with the intention to cause “harm to persons or property” or the the “purpose of conducting surveillance unless expressly permitted by law.”

Operators would be required to register their drones with the city and mandated to carry up to $300,000 in insurance against personal injuries and $50,000 worth of insurance against damage to property.

Radio-controlled model airplanes also would be reined in. Toy aircraft attached to a wire and hand-gliders would be exempt, presumably because they pose no safety risk.

The Chicago Park District would be empowered to designate parks and other areas where recreational use of drones could be permitted.

Burke has argued that the proliferation of drones across the nation for a variety of uses cries out for regulation.

“It’s clear now that these drones can be equipped with cameras. So some person with bad motives could be using the drone to peak into people’s private rooms,” Burke said in July.

“Another one that’s even more troublesome is a man who was arrested out on the border of Midway Airport where his drone crashed into the runway and the Air National Guard was operating a training exercise for its helicopters. So these drones, much like a bird, could cause a major airplane accident.”

Burke noted that the owner of the Midway drone was not charged by police because police, hunters and fishermen are the “only three categories” of people banned from using drones in Illinois, under existing state law.

To underscore the threat to public safety posed by drones, the aldermen pointed to three recent incidents, two in Chicago, the other in Washington, D.C.

Last August, a Chicago man sent a drone over Lollapalooza and posted video of it on YouTube. The FAA blasted the drone owner as “careless and reckless.”

On July 21, the toy drone crashed at Midway while the National Guard was conducting a Black Hawk helicopter training mission.

And in January, a drone crashed into a tree on the south lawn of the White House.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he needs to study the drone ordinance before weighing in on it. But on the day the ordinance was introduced, the mayor jokingly told a reporter, “As long as it’s over your house, I’m OK with it.”

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