MURPHYSBORO — Patrick McDonald placed a white drone onto the sidewalk in front of him, before mouthing a few words into a walkie-talkie-style device, before someone sputtered back a few words in response.
In a few seconds, the four rotors on the drone started sputtering, and it propelled itself the air — up and up — until it was a several feet above the ground.
Down below, McDonald pointed out that the unmanned aircraft was scanning the ground below and had captured the images of those gathered to watch it. But not just that day’s image; the months-old drone has helped the staff gather valuable information about spring flooding, road projects and other needs around the airport.
“It does seem to be the new frontier of flight,” said McDonald, the airport’s operations supervisor who is also a certified drone operator. “From the perspective of the airport, we’re really in … that we can’t even see yet, … to use this type of technology.”
As hobby and commercial drone operators experiment with all the ways they can enjoy their drones, McDonald’s employer, the Southern Illinois Airport, is positioning itself to take the lead on how local municipalities, particularly those within a five-mile radius of the airport, might craft their own drone policies.
Airport administrators cite safety as their chief concern, particularly that of the aircraft and passengers arriving at and departing from the airport, and want those who would lift a drone — particularly hobbyists who are not now required to notify the airport or the FAA when they put their drone in flight.
“Our concern at the airport is public safety,” airport attorney Steven Bost told the Murphysboro City Council at its meeting this past Tuesday. “This is not gonna be the last time you’re asked to deal with this, because it’s a moving target.”
Creating an ordinance
Airport administrators have crafted a proposed drone ordinance that would impact drone use within a five-mile radius of the airport, modeled after the FAA rule discouraging drone use within five miles of an airport.
In addition to Murphysboro officials, representatives from the Village of De Soto, City of Carbondale and Jackson County, all within the five-mile radius, are also being presented the proposal.
The draft ordinance proposes “to regulate the operation of unmanned aircraft systems near the Southern Illinois Airport.” In addition to drones, the proposed ordinance also covers remote-controlled aircraft and model aircraft.
“To ensure operations are accountable, no Unmanned Aircraft or Unmanned Aircraft Systems weighing more than 250 grams shall take-off from, land upon, or be operated from any land within the boundaries of the City of Murphysboro without the operator first notifying the Southern Illinois Airport of the intended operation of the device or system. The Airport may require additional information from the operator at the time of notification to the Airport.”
The document notes that the requested information shall contain the name, address and telephone number of the person or corporation filling the notice and a phone number for them to be reached during the operation; the operation’s take-off and landing location; the operation’s expected start and end time (anything greater than four hours would require a new notice); the purpose of the operation; a statement affirming that the operator has consulted relevant Federal, state and local laws and rules and intends to abide by them; and “such other information at the Airports shall deem reasonably necessary to inform it whether the takeoff, landing, or operation will endanger the health, safety, or welfare of persons located within the Airspace Radius, and if such use is inconsistent with this Ordinance or any other law.”
According to airport director Gary Shafer, there are 200 drones registered for use with the airport.
Shafer and Bost are especially concerned about hobbyists, who are not required to register their drones and who are not bound by FAA rules, as are the commercial drone operators. FAA rules indicates that commercial drone operators must be certified UAS pilots; fly their UAS no higher than 400 feet and no faster than 100 miles per hour; and not fly at night, although exemptions can be requested, Bost said.
“Hobbyists, it’s totally different,” Bost said. “You have to abide by some special rules for model aircraft. …”
He noted that with all those rules in place, there is only one FAA enforcement officer south of Interstate 80.
Bost, who is also a Jackson County board member, gave the Murphysboro City Council an overview of aviation and drone history, the industry size and of current Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. He said there were about 500,000 sold in 2014, 1 million the next year, 2.5 million this past year and 7.5 million expected to be sold in 2020. He said hobby drone operators must currently abide by best practices promulgated by the model airplane industry. Commercial drone operators, like those who use the drones in real estate, farming and construction businesses, for instance, must follow FAA guidelines, which include alerting and getting approval before they can send their drones up.
“Futurists tells us that if you like beautiful, object-free skylines, take some pictures, because the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see those fill up with drones, not only delivering but collecting data and information for themselves,” Bost said. “So it’s gonna change things. But we have to be aware because I think the position of the airport is we’re on the front lines of public safety: This is what we’re here for, is to protect the public and make it safe, but at the same time, not overstepping our bounds with the FAA, not hampering innovation that’s going to do us a lot of good potentially.”
Reaction to the proposed ordinance
The crux of the proposed ordinance calls for those operating drones within the airport’s five-mile radius to file an intent to operate with airport administrators.
Murphysboro City Council members took no action on the proposed ordinance at their Tuesday night meeting. Mayor Will Stephens said it was the first time he’d seen the proposed ordinance.
“The city council heard the presentation and decided that more time was needed to review the proposal before adopting it,” Stephens said. “Several residents who own and operate drones as a hobby have reached out to me and offered suggestions that I think should be considered. I will be bringing those and other comments back to the council for consideration at our next meeting.”
The mayor said he had not heard of any problems with drones in the city, but does know that they have been used to the city’s Cruise night events, opening ceremonies at Murphysboro Baseball Inc. little league and other events by private individuals.
“So in short, I have not been confronted with any issues concerning drones,” Stephens said. In general, he said he doesn’t tend to support regulation just for the sake of regulation.
“I also believe there might be room to discuss if five miles is the proper radius surrounding the airport, or if that might be able to be trimmed down to some extent,” he shared in an email. “This is a classic example of safety versus liberty and striking the right balance is not often an easy thing to do.”
Bost said the five-mile radius was not an arbitrary figure, but one selected per FAA rules governing commercial drone use.
One local commercial drone operator, Nathan Colombo, attended the Murphysboro meeting. He said though he supported the proposed ordinance, he would like to see clarification on a section referring to drones flying over property and leading to allegations of a violation of privacy.
“There needs to be a little bit more definition in this local measure,” said Colombo, who runs Brand Advocacy Group, Inc., which uses drone photography in its marketing. “(There needs to be) a bit more of a clearer understanding, a bit more understanding of what the restrictions (are).”
During the meeting, Bost said that anyone shooting at a drone, if convicted, could face up to 20 years in prison.
An incident this past fall led airport’s administrators to decide to start holding these talks, Shafer said. He said there was a report of a drone in the approach of an incoming aircraft.
“We decided to organize this meeting … to see if we could generate some interest among the community to help us implement some ordinances … to enforce,” Shafer said. “That’s part of this puzzle, getting these folks on board and getting them acquainted with what they can do and what they cannot do with respect to what the ordinance has to say.”
Another major issue needing to be addressed would be enforcement of the ordinance. Bost noted that there was only one FAA enforcement office south of Interstate 80.
McDonald noted that he recently took a call from someone who called the airport to report a complaint about drone use.
“Generally, it would end up being the respective law enforcement agency (responsibility),” Shafer said in a separate conversation.
With a major natural event scheduled for next month, the August solar eclipse, airport administrators are hoping to get some language in place to help moderate hobbyists and commercial drone operators coming into the area for the event.
“Right now we’re coming up on what I’m afraid will be a perfect storm … we have numerous, numerous requests to the airport to come in, people want to fly in, they want to circle,” Bost told the Murphysboro council. “That’s what they’re gonna do, they want be up in the air to see the solar eclipse in August. There’re gonna be people with the same reasoning with their drones … thinking about flying up for a first or second time to see what’s going on.”
“That is a recipe for disaster,” Bost said. “There’s been a lot of close calls nationally as far as drone strikes. Some people are dismissive; we say, ‘hey we suck birds into the intake all the time.’ But birds aren’t made of carbon fiber, right? That’s a great big difference. So that’s where we find ourselves. It’s more of a ‘we-want-to-make’ that we’re doing everything we can for public safety’ until we get better guidance from the feds.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of usage of drones, McDonald and others noted.
He said that as drones are used more and more, their applications will become noted; his brother, who works in construction, was asking him about using a drone to take measurements of a roof.
He also noted that drones can use infrared technology, which could help law enforcement or search-and-rescuers to find people who might be lost or hiding. Illinois law, however, currently prohibits law enforcement from using drones for surveillance, although information gathered from a third-party drone operator may shared with them.
The technology is ever-changing, McDonald noted, mentioning a new drone, a Mavic Pro that can fit into a pocket or handbag. The drone is manufactured by DJI.
“It’s like ‘what can’t we use this thing for’ at this point,” McDonald said.