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Chicago Moves to Ban Drones Flying Over 400 Feet and Above Private Property

By Ted Cox | November 12, 2015 5:12pm

Alds. Scott Waguespack and Ed Burke talk about drone restrictions. (DNAinfo/Ted Cox)

CITY HALL — A City Council committee set the way for stiff new regulations on drones Thursday by passing what many called the first "common-sense" local legislation in the nation on the use of small, unmanned aircraft.

While not interfering with existing federal rules imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the new ordinance would ban drone operators from flying them without prior consent over people or private property, schools, hospitals and places of worship or within five miles of an airport. It would also limit them to a maximum of 400 feet off the ground.

"Current regulations have not kept pace with developing drone technology," said Ald. Edward Burke (14th), co-sponsor of the ordinance along with Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). Burke added that they were out to "codify common-sense operations."

Burke cited incidents where a drone flew over Lollapalooza last year, as well as crashes earlier this year on the White House lawn and at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City. He said a drone crashed at Midway International Airport in July during a Coast Guard training session involving a Blackhawk helicopter, and all police could do was charge the operator with disorderly conduct.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said Lincoln Park had been rattled recently about a drone hovering over Francis Parker School, and Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) added that there had been "a lot of complaints of invasion of privacy" involving drones on the Northwest Side.

The ordinance sets stiff fines ranging from $500-$5,000 for violations, as well as allowing jail terms of up to 180 days. It dropped requirements in the original proposal that drone operators register with the city and have insurance, as Waguespack said those were adequately addressed in federal law.

Waguespack and Burke insisted they were not out to overregulate a nascent industry. Waguespack said they've had conversations with the Park District to set up drone zones, adding, "We'll have to coordinate with them in the future."

Henry Perritt Jr., a law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, cheered the ordinance as "common-sense" legislation, while other cities are banning drones outright, and testified that existing privacy laws would also apply to the use of drones.

Christopher Morrison, owner of Robo Aerial, displays a drone at Thursday's hearing. (DNAinfo/Ted Cox)

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) called the ordinance "much-needed," but clarified that it would not restrict legitimate commercial operators, such as those using drones to inspect power lines.

Colin Hinkle, who uses a $3,000 drone to do freelance work for WBBM-TV Channel 2 and WLS-TV Channel 7, testified he is registered with the FAA as a commercial operator, which gives him an exemption from some elements of the new city statute, but strict federal guidelines remain in force. He warned of "rogue commercial operators" who might send drones anywhere.

"There does need to be some accountability out there," Hinkle added.

Dennis Lyle, president of the Illinois Broadcasters Association, sought an additional exemption for what he called "First Amendment concerns," arguing that drones "can help revolutionize newsgathering" and potentially serve as "an extraordinary tool for journalists." He pointed to their potential use in covering a parade, rally or natural disaster, and cited how news organizations have already proved responsible in using helicopters and planes to cover stories.

Burke was receptive to that, calling it "appropriate," and Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), chairman of the Aviation Committee that passed the proposal, said he would refer it to the Law Department for additional amendments.

Burke said he was confident the Police Department could enforce it, but, as a new industry, "We're gonna have to play it by ear for a while." He added that he expected the ordinance itself would encourage public vigilance, and the FAA also has a hotline to report violations.

Speaking of TV news, Burke and Waguespack lured in TV reporters with promises a drone would fly in the Council Chamber, but when asked to demonstrate one Hinkle deferred, saying, "I would rather not."

Curious readers can content themselves with this viral video of animals attacking drones.

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