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Local News

As drone popularity grows, so do Will County flight industry officials' concerns

Flight industry officials: Keep unmanned aircraft away from airports

CREST HILL – If you’ve unboxed that small unmanned aerial vehicle you received for Christmas, be warned: Users can’t fly UAVs – also known as drones – within 5 miles of an airport unless they get permission beforehand through the airport or its control tower.

Interactive maps outlining the 5-mile radii surrounding U.S. airports have popped up all over the Internet. Crest Hill airplane pilot and drone user Jim Klick, curious to see just what the airspace restrictions mean for locals, recently turned to paper and pen to draw his own version.

The map’s not perfect, he said, but it does show how little airspace is left to freely fly a drone in Will County.

The rules apply even in his own backyard. In Klick’s case, he is required to call the Joliet Regional Airport and Lewis University Airport in Romeoville if he wants to fly his drone on his property. He also has to call Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center, which has a heliport. Other private airports are scattered throughout a 5-mile radius of his home.

“I want to fly my toys,” said Klick, who also is a member of the Joliet Regional Port District, which owns and operates the Lewis University Airport in Romeoville.

As an airplane pilot, Klick said he also wants to follow the rules and urge others to do the same. He uses the Federal Aviation Administration-backed smartphone application called B4UFLY – a mapping system that shows a person’s exact location and airport locations to determine where drone users can fly.

The 5-mile rule applies to all airports, public or private, and heliports, including corporate and hospital, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said in an email.

There are 21 airports – public and private – scattered throughout Will County that cover a substantial portion of the county’s airspace. That leaves drone users with little authority to fly the unmanned aircrafts in their own yards without first phoning nearby airports.

The uninformed user

With UAVs growing in popularity, the FAA in December issued emergency rules ahead of the Christmas rush requiring people to register their drones. In the past two weeks alone, 181,000 drones have been registered through the federal agency’s website.

The FAA allows airport personnel to deny a person’s request to fly if they believe the activity impacts the safety of other airport operations.

Joe DePaulo, president and manager at Bolingbrook’s Clow International Airport, said he’s denied the few requests he’s received.

“I have been very reluctant,” DePaulo said on a recent Thursday afternoon. “We have a very, very active flight school. ... There’s three airplanes in the pattern as we speak.”

For every few people who call to notify him, he worries there are more “uninformed” drone users who received one over the holidays.

“The FAA is way behind in the monitoring of the situation, as popular as these drones are. The FAA is going to have to find a way for these items to co-exist. I don’t think that day is here yet,” DePaulo said.

Chris Lawson, director for the Joliet Regional Port District, said drone users should take seriously the FAA regulations regarding no-fly zones. Pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, according to the FAA. Close calls are no laughing matter, Lawson said.

“It’s not so much the weight of the drone, but the speed of the plane that could cause [a serious collision],” Lawson said.

The consequences of flying a UAV within the 5-mile airport zone vary considerably, the FAA’s Cory wrote in an email.

“It is possible they could face civil penalties from the FAA for careless and reckless operation of an aircraft and/or interference with a crew member. I can’t say for certain without a real-life case and investigation. Penalties are determined after an investigation,” she said.

As part of the requirement to phone in first, the FAA requires that airplane personnel obtain certain information from the drone operator, including: geographic location and operation area dimensions, altitude, number of models and operators, a real-time contact, a record of the activity, the time and duration of the activity, and a method to determine an end to the flight.

Uncharted territory

Drones’ ability to monitor crop quality from a bird’s-eye view is increasingly catching the attention of farmers in Will County as the agriculture industry becomes more sophisticated with technology use.

John Kiefner, a Manhattan farmer and member of the Will County Farm Bureau, said while he personally isn’t interested in owning a drone because of his dislike for technology, he knows many farmers who are.

“Our worries are that people who got these drones for Christmas gifts will misuse them and that will lead to [the FAA] restricting them even more for agriculture use,” Kiefner said. “Also, you can’t fly them over someone else’s private property. It’s awful tempting for people, and almost impossible for someone to not fly them into someone else’s property.”

Kathy Hoffmeyer, spokeswoman for the Will County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency has not yet had any issues with recreational drone users. But that’s “not to say we won’t have problems in the future,” she added.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said it’s “such a new area of the law” that he hadn’t yet considered regulating drones on the local level, as some cities across the U.S. have.

But it’s certainly something he sees being considered.

Joliet Police Deputy Chief Brian Dupuis said the department has yet to receive a complaint within the city limits about unauthorized UAV use. Despite the exploding popularity, he noted that the high price of a UAV is likely deterring some parents from purchasing one. Prices online for high-end drones reach close to $4,000.

“They’re expensive. It’s probably a very fun, very expensive 20-second toy [before it crashes],” Dupuis said.

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KNOW MORE ABOUT FLYING DRONES

• Fly no higher than 400 feet and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible.

• Keep your UAV in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed.

• Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations. You must see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.

• Do not intentionally fly over unprotected people or moving vehicles. Remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property.

• Contact the airport or control tower before flying within 5 miles of that facility.

• Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.

• Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

• Ensure the operating environment is safe and that the operator is competent and proficient in the operation of the UAV.

• Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property, such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.

• Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.

• Do not conduct surveillance or photograph people in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration

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WHO TO CALL WHEN YOU WANT TO FLY A DRONE

• Joliet Regional Airport – 815-741-7267

• Lewis University Airport – 815-838-9497, ext. 103

• Clow International Airport – 630-378-0479

• Morris Municipal Airport – 815-942-1600

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