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The Drones of Chicago: More Hobbyists Hovering as Laws Try To Catch Up

By Alex Parker | September 9, 2014 5:28am

THE LOOP — As thousands of fans moved to the beat of Skrillex at Lollapalooza last month, their eyes were directed away from the stage, to the sky.

"Everyone look at the UFO up in the sky!" Skrillex shouted. The crowd went wild.

What they saw wasn’t a UFO, of course. It was a two-pound, four-propeller drone belonging to Downtown resident Alfredo Roman, 30.

Alex Parker says that drone regulations are a bit murky:

A lifelong Chicagoan who grew up in Pilsen and dabbles in photography, Roman said Lollapalooza stoked his interest while he was flying his drone around the lakefront that evening.

"I just saw strobes everywhere and lights everywhere, and a lot of action, and I just went over there," said Roman. "I can't say I was thinking a lot about it."

Hobbyists fall in love with hovering aircrafts

His drone, a DJI Phantom 2, captured a rarely seen vantage point of the flashing lights and booming bass that is a hallmark of the festival — exactly as he intended.

"It’s a way to capture certain scenes for my own personal use," said Roman, who likes photographing architecture and has used his drone to get up-close-and-personal views of bridges spanning the Chicago River and a coal-fired plant in Pilsen.

Alfredo Roman's drone has captured myriad city images.

Roman said the Federal Aviation Administration contacted him after his Lollapalooza images went viral. They reportedly discussed "applicable laws, regulations and requirements" facing civilian drone pilots — which aren't exactly clear.

Drones entered the American consciousness in the last decade as they were deployed over conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. For civilians, drones, also known as unmanned aerial systems, have become a widely available and increasingly common tool to record videos. In Chicago, a growing number of drone enthusiasts use the machines to showcase the city.

River North resident Matt Makris has been flying drones — or R/C aircraft, as he calls them — for about six months. He’s built two of his own, and is constructing a third.

“I’ve always been interested in flight. I’ve always been interested in [remote control] planes and helicopters,” he said. “From there, my interest keeps evolving, and I wanted to learn more.”

His favorite place to fly his aircraft is near the former Cabrini-Green public housing project, where his videos have captured the eeriness of abandoned row houses and rusting basketball hoops.

“Half of the fun for me … is making [drones] and learning about radio frequency, voltage, electricity, learning how electronics work,” said Makris, co-founder of River North digital marketing agency EM Search Consulting.

Regulating drones: a work in progress

The images caught by area drone videographers are worthy of Hollywood. They are also potentially dangerous and possibly violate guidelines set by the FAA in 1981, said Matt Waite, director of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The guidelines include alerting airports if a drone is flying within five miles, not flying over groups of people and not flying above 400 feet, Waite said.

"In Chicago [flying drones] is a real problem ... because you have an exceptionally busy airspace," Waite said, especially when it comes to police helicopters and air ambulances. Also problematic are the crowded areas and the allure of skyscrapers that draw photographers.

Aurora resident Skip Signhsumalee shot stunning video of the city, but federal guidelines warn of flying too high.

But in their quests to capture remarkable imagery, drone enthusiasts have to balance these guidelines with laws that are “at best murky and at worst, there are no rules,” Waite said.

“The controversy here is that the FAA has been using those voluntary restrictions and some other parts of the law that may or may not apply to small flying robots with cameras on them,” Waite said.

The FAA declined to comment, but said in a statement it expected to unveil updated guidelines for drone amateurs later this year. The agency said drones fall under its purview as aircraft, and pointed to a June news release alerting drone enthusiasts to updated guidelines.

“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

The news release from Huerta added that the FAA may take action against users whose aircraft “[endanger] the safety of the national airspace system.”

The guidelines also state drones cannot be used for commercial purposes. The FAA has signaled a willingness to target drones being used for commercial use, Waite said, though courts have ruled in favor of at least two defendants fined by the FAA.

“Right now, if you’re a hobbyist, you’re just doing it for fun, not getting paid…then you’re cool,” Waite said.

Those hobbyists pay a steep price for their gear. Makris said his custom machines can cost up to $2,000. Roman estimated his drone — which includes added features like a GoPro camera and kit that allows him to view the drone's perspective on a mobile device — cost about $1,500.

"It's an expensive hobby," Roman said. "You start losing track once you start getting into it."

No one knows for certain how many drone enthusiasts are in the city. A MeetUp.com group called the Chicago Area Drone User Group boasts more than 100 members, many of whom live in the suburbs.

Economic drivers or flying spies?

Ryan Twose, a Deerfield resident who is the group's administrator, said drones could be used for more than just hobby photography.

"It's an exciting technology. I think robotics and unmanned systems in general have come a long way," he said. "It's a great emerging technology that could positively impact the economy in a lot of ways."

Amazon and Google, among other companies, have floated the idea of using drones to deliver products, but that's likely a long way off, Waite said.

The onslaught of tiny aircraft in the skies brings concerns ranging from privacy and safety to how law enforcement uses the technology.

Last year, the General Assembly banned the use of drones by law enforcement agencies to collect surveillance. The Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act includes caveats that drones may be deployed to combat an immediate criminal or terror threat, or if a judge approves a search warrant.

Unlike the drones that fly over Afghanistan and Pakistan, the state bans law enforcement agencies from arming their devices.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to questions regarding whether it owns drones, or if it had used the technology before.

All the drone users interviewed for this article acknowledged the privacy concerns created by drones, which can hover hundreds of feet in the air. But they said those fears are misplaced.

"By and large, the overwhelming vast majority of these things are flying for fun," Waite said. "They're not spying on you."

For now, it appears that the skies are open for drone enthusiasts.

“You’re going to see more and more people flying these things in parks, buzzing on the street in your neighborhood,” Waite said.

 

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