Drone video sparks public safety discussion in Naperville

A drone flies over downtown Naperville one December night, unbeknown to the shoppers and drivers below.

It's operated by a North Aurora man who's taking footage for a video showing the holiday lights. He posts the video to YouTube, and eventually people - and police - take notice.

Now city officials - some with safety and privacy concerns - are exploring what, if anything, can be done to regulate any future flights.

Drones, defined in state law as "any aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator" are increasing in popularity, Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall says. But he worries they could pose public safety concerns.

"Our fear is that they're going to fall out of the sky and hit someone," Marshall said.

The police department denied a request to fly a drone over Ribfest last summer and has begun to investigate oversight possibilities for the small flying vehicles and what the city can do to keep them in check.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which governs the use of the devices, told Marshall it requires drone operators to get a license and to keep their aircraft in sight while it is in flight. Drone operators are supposed to give warning before flying within five miles of any airport, and they must keep the drone within 400 feet of the ground.

"These regulations are regularly violated," Marshall said.

John Pauly, 22, of North Aurora, said no one from the FAA has told him he was in violation of any regulations during the recent nighttime flight in Naperville or other flights he and two of his friends have conducted in Lisle, Geneva and Aurora.

"When you fly recklessly is when you can get in trouble, and we never try to fly recklessly," he said.

Pauly and his friends are shooting promotional videos featuring towns in the Western suburbs to make a name for themselves before potentially launching a drone video company.

He said he's gotten requests to shoot fireworks shows, real estate properties and golf courses, but such ideas are on hold until more specific regulations about the commercial use of drones are released. Pauly said that could happen in September, but until then, regulations are "foggy."

City council members encouraged Marshall to continue researching potential drone regulations because interest in the activity as a hobby and for business ideas like Pauly's is likely to increase.

Some people could have privacy concerns about a drone capturing images from above, but council member Robert Fieseler said he sees no harm.

"So they took some pictures going down the street - what's the big deal?" he said.

As a patent lawyer, Fieseler said he knows companies are investing in drone technology.

"This is another one of those matters where the technology has outpaced the law," he said.

Pauly said the $1,300 drone he bought uses Wi-Fi and GPS technology. It has a "return home safely" feature, so if the battery starts to die, it will return to the exact GPS location where it was launched, flying at a preset altitude.

"If they're flown responsibly, they're just so very safe and the technology is just extraordinary," Pauly said. "It's not something that's going to come crashing out of the sky and hit you or hit your vehicle."

Anyone in Naperville who sees a drone and has concerns can call police at (630) 420-6666 to file a complaint. Marshall said complaints will be investigated by the FAA to determine who flew the drone and whether regulations were followed.

Two pieces of state legislation related to drones are pending, and City Attorney Jill Wilger said her department will keep the council informed about any new laws.

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