Draw the line on drones


Chicago got around to regulating aircraft over the city in 1919, only after a dirigible crashed through a skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank at LaSalle and Jackson, an accident that left 13 people dead.

We would be wise to learn from history and not wait for another disaster before putting rules in place to regulate the hordes of private drones likely to roam our skies someday soon.

Early signs of a drone invasion are here. During Lollapalooza, for example, a camera-equipped drone flew over the crowds, making a lot of people nervous. Federal Aviation Administration officials are reviewing the incident.

Other drones elsewhere also are making it clear they’re ready to turn our skies into an aerial Dan Ryan.

Last month, a civilian drone interfered with firefighters battling California wildfires. Last week, Los Angeles police were alarmed by a drone recording officers going to and from cruisers parked at a police station. A week ago, a camera-equipped drone crashed into the largest hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. Drones also have buzzed the Seattle Space Needle and a crowded amphitheater at Mt. Rushmore and annoyed visitors at the Grand Canyon. In June, a Seattle woman reported a drone peeping through her apartment window. A California state representative is seeking to ban drones.

Last year, Illinois enacted a law placing privacy-protecting limits on how law enforcement may use drones. But the Legislature lost interest in saying anything about private or commercial unmanned aircraft. Springfield should refocus and get rules in place before drones fill the skies like passenger pigeons. At that point, it will be much harder to make changes.

Sitting here today, we probably can’t imagine all the ways drones, as they get cheaper and better, will be of use to us. Already, they are being used to search for missing people, track wildlife, shoot dramatic footage for Hollywood movies, monitor pipelines and make sure crops are doing OK.

For future uses, the sky is the limit. Amazon and Domino’s want to use them to deliver packages and pizzas. Security companies see a huge potential for drone assistance. Scientists could use them to gather data.

But the very attributes that make drones so useful also can be turned against us. Drones could follow us around without our knowledge until the video turns up on YouTube. They could be an aerial gold mine for private detectives. Corporate spies and political campaigns already tail people, and drones would make it easier and more invasive. Who wants to think that obnoxious person you thought you’d got out of your life is keeping tabs on you from above?

The technical ability of unmanned aircraft and the cameras they carry is alarming. They can peek through windows or use see-through imaging if no window is available. They can track us from such a distance or be so miniaturized we won’t know they are there.

The FAA, which ignores drones used as a hobby or for recreation as long as they stay under 400 feet and away from airports, said a decade ago it would come up with rules for commercial drones, but the only thing it’s produced so far is a recent preliminary plan on how air space should be shared.

The Illinois Legislature needs to step in. We need rules that will let us reap the benefit of drone technology without risks to our privacy and safety.