Drone regulations approved — without show-and-tell demo

A pair of show-and-tell drones were grounded, but the legislative crackdown was cleared for takeoff. Already “one of the top drone cities” in the nation, Chicago is poised to become the first major city to adopt “intelligent” regulations.

The City Council’s Aviation Committee made certain of it Thursday by approving a watered-down ordinance that, if adequately enforced, could sharply restrict recreational use of drones as well as commercial use not granted FAA exemption.

“I don’t know what the ability is for these devices to carry a payload, but it would seem that the potential for danger is unlimited,” said co-sponsoring Ald. Edward Burke (14th), pointing to the lack of regulation and the ease with which drones can be purchased on the Internet.

“I know that a city ordinance is not going to deter some terrorist from using a device like this for an evil purpose. But, if for nothing else, it hopefully will stimulate the citizens of our community to keep their eyes open and, if they see somebody with one of these things, they will call the police or call the appropriate city agency to report the activity,” Burke said.

During the hearing, Burke encouraged Colin Hinkle, the owner of Soaring Badger Productions, to perform a demonstration with the $1,200 and $3,000 drones that Hinkle had brought to the City Council chambers. Burke asked Hinkle to fly one of them to hover over the engineer in the sound booth above the chambers.

But Hinkle refused to oblige.

“I would rather not. All of these cameras here. That sounds like the YouTube moment of the week,” Hinkle said.

“Can’t force him to,” Burke said.

Co-sponsoring Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who proposed the elaborate show-and-tell, added: “He would get in trouble, I guess, with the FAA.”

Hinkle did weigh in on the need for local regulation. He said he already operates by a set of rules and has drones that are programmed to “stay at 400 feet” and hit a “virtual wall” if he goes anywhere near Soldier Field.

“It’s not uncommon for me to get someone to ask, ‘Can you fly to the virtual 80th floor of a building that we’re going to build and show me what it’s going to look like. And I had to tell them, `No. It’s not possible. If you want to do that, I can make it happen, but we have to get a helicopter,’ ” Hinkle said.

“That’s why it’s important that there are rules in place — like what you’re proposing. Because I have noticed in the past several months an increase in rogue commercial operators in Chicago,” he said. “People that go out and buy a drone online and they start to try to make money immediately off of it. They don’t get an [FAA] exemption. They don’t get insurance. They just use it and make a little money.

“Those people can then come in and they’ll do things without any fear or concern for the laws or restrictions that I have. . . . There does need to be some accountability out there,” Hinkle added.

Two years ago, Chicago Police 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.

They came back with an ordinance that would have required operators to register their drones with the city and carry up to $300,000 in insurance against personal injuries and $50,000 worth of insurance against damage to property.

Both of those requirements were dropped from the ordinance approved Thursday out of deference to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has its own plans to register recreational drone users to track rogue drones that pose a burgeoning threat to aviation security.

And instead of banning drones within a quarter-mile of a school, hospital, open-air stadium, police station or place of worship, the new version prohibits drones from flying “over” those facilities.

But a host of other restrictions survived the rewrite.

The ordinance approved Thursday still draws a 5-mile protective ring around O’Hare and Midway Airports. Drones would also be prohibited between dawn and dusk; during inclement weather; outside the line of sight of the operator; higher than 400 feet above ground level or within 500 feet of any electric generation facility or substation.

They also would be banned “directly over” any unconsenting person as well as over “property the operator does not own.”

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 “purpose of conducting surveillance unless expressly permitted by law.”

Henry Perritt Jr., a professor from the Chicago Kent College of Law, praised the aldermen for crafting “basically a good ordinance” that enacts “intelligent” local regulation without having a “chilling” effect on innovation.

That seemed particularly important after aldermen were told that Chicago is “one of the top drone cities in the country” and that only three other states are home to more companies granted FAA exemptions to use drones.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), asked whether the ordinance goes far enough toward protecting the “right to be left alone.”

Perritt replied that there are “lots of law” already on the books that protect personal privacy.

“I don’t think it matters very much whether the peeping Tom is flying one of those [drones] or using binoculars or a long lens on a camera or has his face pressed up against your bedroom window. All of those are an invasion of privacy and all of those are criminal,” Perritt said.

“It’s certainly appropriate to be concerned about privacy and we all are losing it rapidly with the new Internet technology, red-light cameras, other such things,” he said. “But I think it is misplaced to think that some particular tool like drones changes the basic balance to be struck for privacy.”

Matthew Bieschke, president of the UAS America Fund, called the ordinance an excellent start. But he urged aldermen to draw a sharper distinction between “recreational, impulse hobbyists — everyone getting a drone for the holidays and the experienced, safe commercial operators.”

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