Fans and foes debate as suburban drones proliferate
Across the suburbs, drones costing $579 to $1,229 are fulfilling the ambitions of wannabe pilots who become space voyeurs with the click of a button.
But one man's dream is another's "stop filming my koi pond!" or a mom's "what if it drops in the park?"
Those privacy and safety concerns are prompting a gust of proposed state and federal rules and regulations in 2015 that may bring the drone phenomenon down to earth.
Ownership of unmanned aircraft systems is skyrocketing with global sales of consumer drones expected to reach 400,000 this year.
Among the satisfied customers is Fred Pfeifer, a photographer and videographer from Arlington Heights. He saw a drone in Brookstone and was smitten.
"Men love drones," said Pfeifer. He bought his Phantom 2 last fall and, aside from an encounter with a tree in his backyard, has flown multiple successful missions. "It was easy, I loved it and every male who drove by and saw me would get out of the car and say, 'Is that cool!'"
He estimates 20 percent of his drone flights are for business and 80 percent recreational.
That could put Pfeifer in two camps. The Federal Aviation Administration has different rules for drones used commercially or for pleasure. After much deliberation, the agency proposed regulations in February for business-related drones weighing 55 pounds or less.
Operators could fly drones during daylight at no higher than 500 feet and no faster than 100 mph, under the new rules. They also would need to pass a written test and obtain an operator certificate. Drones would have to remain in eyesight of the operator or observers on the ground.
That quashes talk of flying pizza deliveries or Amazon hurtling goods across the U.S. via drone -- for now.
For people who fly for pleasure, the ground rules are simpler. Operators must fly below 400 feet, keep drones within eyesight, stay away from people and stadiums, and notify airports if a drone will be within five miles.
The possibilities are endless, enthusiasts say, from police using drones for surveillance, to utilities inspecting power lines, to high schools filming football games. One local team, the South Elgin Storm, used game video from its drone as a learning tool in 2014, but that's under review.
Realtor Scott Gerami's eight drones capture aerial photos and video of houses and grounds that make his website pop and sell properties. The managing broker for Re/Max Professionals in Naperville thinks the FAA commercial regulations are needed.
"A lot of people do bad things by flying over people or flying over crowds," he explained.
Gerami said he takes pains to film when people aren't around, doesn't hover his drones directly over homes or cars and takes a colleague along to help. He "learned the hard way" when he started in 2011 that drones can crash.
"Things beyond your control can happen once it's up there," Gerami said. Battery failures, unexpected winds, nicking a tree limb can all turn a smooth flight into a mayday or -- as in the case of the drone that smacked into the White House lawn in January -- a security scare. "If someone tells you it's not going to crash, they don't know what they're talking about," Gerami said.
North Aurora drone operator John Pauly considers the regulations "reasonable."
"The thing that does concern me is the 'no night flying.' How are you supposed to film fireworks or the beautiful Chicago skyline at night?" Pauly asked. "All of the more expensive drones have lights on them, so I find that it's easier to keep the drone in sight at night than compared to the day."
Pauly drew some unsought attention from authorities in Naperville after he posted a lyrical video of holiday lights in December on YouTube. Naperville police said such activities could pose safety problems.
A lot of operators just "are not aware of the federal regulations," Naperville Police Chief Bob Marshall said.
If you think crash fears are groundless, the FAA currently receives about 25 reports per month from pilots who have seen unmanned aircraft or model aircraft operating near their aircraft. While many of these sightings are from general aviation or helicopter pilots, airline crews have also reported them, an official said.
Two suburban lawmakers jumped on the drone issue this year.
Republican state Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville filed a bill that increases the penalties for someone who breaks altitude restrictions for drones near stadiums and arenas when more than 35 people are present.
After a successful season with its drone, South Elgin's football team is now working with the FAA and Elgin Area School District U-46 to come up with a policy that allows flights to continue and is in compliance with all regulations. One open question is whether the drone falls into the hobbyist or commercial category.
"We're working through the legalities. We want to make sure we go out of our way to make everybody happy," coach Pat Pistorio said.
Aerial footage is "like nothing else," Pistorio added. "Our kids have gotten used to it and they've grown as players."
Another lawmaker, Democrat state Sen. Julie Morrison of Deerfield, hopes to stop so-called hunters who use drones to track game with a bill that supports the "doctrine of fair chase."
True sportsmen are "out in the animal's environment," Morrison said. "Tracking the animal, stalking, taking the prey down ... not using some kind of device." She also wants to convene a state task force to examine different applications of drones and privacy issues.
When Pfeifer got his drone, neighbors quipped half-jokingly, "'I hope you're not going to peek into my bedroom,'" he recalled. "I don't know why anyone would want to look in someone's bedroom."
He thinks history is on the side of drones. "It's like when bicycles first came," Pfeifer said. "You'll always get naysayers."
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