Chicago’s drone law pits residents’ privacy concerns against hobbyists looking for a place to fly

Residents are concerned about spying and annoyed by hovering drones. Operators say the city’s law is regularly misapplied, leading to harassment and no place to fly.

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Dan Barker (right) and other drone operators fly on Chicago’s lakefront.

Dan Barker (right) and other operators fly their drones on Chicago’s lakefront.

Provided by Dan Eidsmoe

A close encounter with an unidentified flying object last month left a condo resident in University Village feeling unnerved.

She was trying to get lost in a book at her University Commons home when she heard the hum of the small, hovering object’s approach as it parked itself level with her porch.

“I flipped it the bird, and it lowered and took off pretty quick,” said Jackie, who didn’t want her last name used. “It just really creeps me out.”

In 2015, Chicago became the first big city to regulate what the Federal Aviation Administration calls “unmanned aircraft systems” and everyone else calls drones.

“The technology was advancing so quickly that we wanted to get ahead of it,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who sponsored the ordinance.

But a consequence, drone enthusiasts say, is a law that has effectively banned flyers from practicing their hobby in the city.

The FAA splits drone operators into two categories: Commercial operators are required to get a license from the FAA, while recreational operators are only required to register their drones.

More than 400 drones have been registered in Chicago since 2015, according to the FAA.

The rules of drone flight are controlled by often overlapping federal, state and local laws. Chicago’s ordinance bans flying near O’Hare and Midway airports, over schools, hospitals, open-air stadiums, police stations, places of worship and directly over any person or private property without permission.

“We get maybe one a month as far as drone complaints,” Waguespack said of calls to his office.

He recommends calling police to enforce the city’s ordinance.

But drone operators say they’re frequently harassed by officers tasked with enforcing laws they don’t fully understand.

A video posted in May to the Chicago Drone Pilots Facebook group shows a CPD officer telling a group of operators it’s illegal for them to fly anywhere in Chicago, much less the lakefront.

Dan Barker, a licensed operator who helps run the Facebook group and owns a drone videography company, says if “10 cops approach you, you get 10 different answers.”

Chicago police could not provide information on the city’s enforcement efforts.

The city is an ideal place to fly because of the wide open spaces and the “gorgeous shots of skyline and lakefront” it affords, Barker said. Those mesmerizing views are what first drew him to drones.

“We’re all doing this tap dance around the city because there doesn’t seem to be any consistent information on where to operate,” said Rich Wickersty, a member of Barker’s group.

The city skyline and Navy Pier is captured at night by drone hovering over Lake Michigan.

The city skyline and Navy Pier is captured at night by drone hovering over Lake Michigan.

Dan Barker/Fly By Chicago Aerial Photography

Pilots used to find a home in the city’s parks — including the lakefront — until police began telling operators they needed a permit to fly. A spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District wasn’t able to provide clarification.

Since then, recreational flyers have been effectively banned from flying anywhere except directly over their own property in the city, operators say.

Attorney Jeffrey Antonelli, who specializes in drone law, believes it’s only a matter of time before the city’s ordinance is overturned in federal court.

“Only the FAA has the right to regulate airspace above the city,” Antonelli said.

Waguespack said residents can’t count on the FAA to police drone operators and the ordinance gives local authorities the power to do so.

University Village resident Lisa Kulisek says she appreciates a federal and city requirement that operators keep the drone in sight at all times. When Kulisek noticed a drone lingering over her backyard, she was able to walk across the street to a park where the operator was and ask him to knock it off.

“If you experience it, you know the feeling. It’s an invasion of privacy,” Kulisek said.

Barker and Wickersty say they understand residents’ privacy concerns but believe nonmilitary drones make poor spying tools, and those fears are a result of the technology still being new. While they’re OK with regulation, they would like to see the city work with operators to provide reasonable accommodations.

“I think Chicago has a great opportunity to find some common ground,” Wickersty said.

Waguespack said he expects the city will revisit the ordinance later this year in light of proposed changes to federal regulations by the FAA.

“There are all sorts of applications for [drones] that five years ago weren’t a thing,” Waguespack said. “The industry is growing by leaps and bounds.”

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