(TNS) -- Chicago aldermen on Thursday tried to get their arms around the fast-evolving, increasingly popular practice of flying unmanned drones over the city, advancing a set of rules meant to protect low-flying jets, fans at outdoor events, schoolchildren and others from the remote-controlled craft.
The number of the small devices being piloted in the skies, many outfitted with cameras, is "growing exponentially," said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. "If government doesn't regulate certain aspects, or at least attempt to, it can get out of control very quickly."
The rules approved by the City Council Aviation Committee set extensive prohibitions on where the drones can legally fly. They create no-fly zones of 5 miles around O'Hare and Midway airports. They also prohibit the devices from being piloted over churches, schools, hospitals and any other property not owned by the drone operator without the owner's consent, or "over any person who is not involved in the operation of the small unmanned aircraft, without such person's consent."
With recent high-profile incidents of a drone crash-landing on the White House lawn and another one of the craft sweeping over the heads of attendees at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, said the council is trying to strike a balance between protecting people from physical harm or having their privacy invaded, and keeping Chicago a welcoming city for the cutting-edge technology.
"We could have followed the lead of a lot of cities around the country that have banned drones," Burke said when asked whether the restrictions are too tight.
The growing commercial potential of the remote-controlled craft for ground mapping, taking video for television and movies or checking on electrical wires and other structures high off the ground was evident at Thursday's meeting by the handful of speakers who said they run businesses or venture capital firms focused on providing drone services.
The City Council originally was planning to require drone operators to pay $50 annual registration fees and carry insurance to cover personal injury and property damage, but scrapped that clause for now because the federal government is working on nationwide drone registration rules. Aldermen said the money-making registration fee could return at some point, as they expect the council to need to revisit the rules soon to keep up with changing technology.
A bit of patented City Council theater failed to develop at the meeting, when drone video company president Colin Hinkle declined Burke's invitation to pilot one of the craft in council chambers. "I would rather not," Hinkle said. "All these cameras here, that sounds like the YouTube moment of the week."
The proposal, which heads to the full City Council later this month, does come with teeth. Violators would face fines of $500 to $5,000 and up to 180 days in jail.
The technology itself will make enforcing the new rules difficult. Drone pilots are often hundreds of feet away from where the craft, which move through the remote manipulation of multiple rotors, hover high above the ground. The ordinance sets a ceiling of 400 feet in Chicago skies, but drones can go much higher than that.
Burke said there will be a learning curve as the city tries to make the regulations work.
"This is a brand-new industry of brand-new activity, and we're going to have to play it by ear for a while and depend on experts who will provide us with information, and the Police Department, which I believe is certainly able to enforce these ordinances," he said.
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