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Chicago needs ‘counter-drone’ program, top mayoral aide tells aldermen

The City Council heard of the possibility of the city adopting an anti-drone program. | AP file photo

Chicago needs a “counter-drone” program to monitor and divert drones launched by private individuals over special events like the Chicago Marathon that draw large crowds, a top mayoral aide said Wednesday.

Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, raised the intriguing possibility under questioning at City Council budget hearings.

It happened after Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) asked whose drone it was that she saw flying over the Oct. 7 Chicago Marathon.

Tate-Nadeau replied, “We have no drones . . . It could very well be an individual that is flying drones.”

Video by Fran Spielman

But Tate-Nadeau said the very presence of private drones over large crowds, particularly in the downtown area, underscores the need for what she called a “counter-drone” program to divert private drones.

“Whenever a drone is following folks over the marathon — I should not have to put up a helicopter to chase a drone. There’s better technology out there,” she said.

“If you had individuals…flying drones over the heads of the public, I would like to see us have the technology to be able to defend against that.”

OEMC Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau says Chicago needs a counter-drone program. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo
OEMC Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau says Chicago needs a counter-drone program. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Tate-Nadeau said at least a portion of the city’s “Urban Area Security Grant” could be used to develop a program that literally diverts private drones over large crowds and sends them back to their owners.

“Whenever the young kid puts up his drone over a large event or the fear that somebody who wanted to do harm to a large crowd would put a drone up, we need a way to get that drone out of that area in a safe manner,” she said.

“I don’t want to commit to a certain technology for counter-drones. But, we’re looking at ones that prevent the radio wave to the drone. That little device that is managing the drone–it would make it so that there’s no eyes and it would send it back to the drone person.”

Tate-Nadeau also talked about the possibility of using “tethered balloons,” and “fixed-wing and rotary-wing” drones to safeguard large crowds.

“If we wanted to make sure that we secured a location overnight, you could put up a gigantic balloon that’s got a string all the way down to the ground. It’s not gonna float up. You could put a camera on that so it could look over that area to ensure that no one is putting a device in a trash can or a backpack,” she said.

“If somebody went and put a device in a trash can or something like that, that would automatically pop on. You’d be able to see that had happened and you could go and check it out.”

And what would all of that gee-whiz technology cost Chicago taxpayers?

“You can buy the Cadillac or you can buy something cheaper. I’m more concerned with making sure that we have a policy and spectrum of resources to meet this emerging threat,” she said.

Three years ago, the City Council tried to strike the appropriate balance between protecting the public and encouraging innovation and technology that has turned Chicago into “one of the top drone cities” in the nation.

One week after a marathon hearing on the subject, aldermen agreed to make Chicago the first major city to adopt “intelligent” regulations.

Although licensing provisions were dropped in deference to the federal government’s pending regulations, aldermen approved a watered-down ordinance that, if adequately enforced, could sharply restrict recreational use of drones as well as commercial use not granted an FAA exemption.

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 still draws a five-mile protective ring around O’Hare and Midway airports. Drones are prohibited between dusk and dawn, 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 are also banned “directly over” any non-consenting person as well as over “property the operator does not own.”

The ordinance also prohibits 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.”

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of being the heavy hand behind legislation that would allow police officers to use drones to monitor the growing number of protests on the streets of Chicago.