VIDEO: Drone interest takes off as regulation lags behind popularity

Justin Jackola's DJI Flame Wheel 450 prepares for liftoff. Jackola is one of Chicago's 353 registered drone enthusiasts. He uses his unmanned aircraft to take aerial photos and videos.

By Laura Furr

From the White House to Chicago’s suburbs, from Lollapalooza to Snapchat, unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as drones, have been making headlines.

And as drone technology becomes cheaper with user-friendly photo and video capabilities, interest in personal drone use has taken off.

Justin Jackola captures video and photo footage from his three drones. Due to FAA regulations, Jackola cannot profit from his skills. (Justin Jackola, Laura Furr/Medill)

“There’s a general fascination with wanting to make something fly and have control over it,” said Ryan Twose, who leads the Chicago Area Drone Users Group Network. “It’s a lot of fun.”

But while interest soars, federal regulators and state legislators are working to keep up with new technologies flying in the country’s airspace.

In Chicago the number of drone enthusiasts has increased dramatically in the last year.

Twose, who became interested in the aircrafts two years ago while vacationing in Canada, said membership in the Chicago DUGN chapter has grown from five to more than 250 hobbyists since he founded the group in January 2014.

A senior representative for The Academy of Model Aeronautics, Charlotte McCoy, said membership in the national group has increased by 10 to 12 percent in the last three years. In the U.S. and Puerto Rico there are 175,000 recreational flyers, McCoy said.

Twose credited this growth to improvements in drone technology, such as micro-light weight systems and better battery power, which have made drones and the cost of taking aerial footage cheaper.

“Technology has been democratized in a sense,” he said. “The cost of entry and going out and purchasing a drone off the shelf has come down, when really only the military was going out and using these platforms before.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has been working to regulate this “democratization” since July 2009, according to an FAA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing rulemaking process. But regulations have been met with confusion.

In 2012 the FAA issued the Modernization and Reform Act that allows drone users to fly their aircrafts for recreational use if the drone is less than 55 pounds, does not interfere with manned aircrafts, is at least 5 miles from an airport and is flown within the operator’s line of sight.

Twenty states have passed drone laws since 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Since 2013, 20 states in the U.S. have enacted laws related to unmanned aircraft systems. Most legislation was aimed at defining unmanned aircraft systems, often known as a drones, and regulating how law enforcement can use them. Many laws tackle issues of privacy and surveillance, while others promote the use of drones for research and innovation. (National Conference of State Legislatures, Laura Furr/Medill)

Illinois has passed three laws since 2013 that allow police and law enforcement to use the drones with a warrant or to prevent imminent danger. This year state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, is proposing a bill to ban the use of drones in hunting and fishing.

“Drones are a technology and science that have come into regular use now by the average person,” Morrison said. “I don’t know if we are really prepared to think of all the repercussions that come along with it, such as safety, liability and privacy issues.”

Though the laws appear straightforward, the FAA continues to mull over the issues that Morrison addressed.

According to the official, the administration is working to clarify its rules. In the meantime, drone users struggle to find flying space.

The main point of confusion stems from those who wish to convert their hobby into a money-making venture.

According to Twose, who also heads Chicago’s group for commercial drone users through the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, there are approximately 30 Chicagoans who have developed business models around their unmanned devices. Some seek to publish their aerial footage while others want to use the products for research or flight training.

Though he said while regulation is necessary to ensure safety, it has its downsides.

“It is hindering innovation in the [air]space for sure,” Twose said. “There are a lot of people up there with a lot of great ideas and business models that really can’t go to market because they can’t operate.”

Under current law, drone users can only fly their aircrafts as a hobby. In order to use a drone for a commercial purpose, flyers must apply for what is known as a Section 333 Exemption.

The FAA has granted 24 exemptions to companies, announcing its most recent eight on Tuesday. In a press release, the administration said it had received 342 applications.

Justin Jackola is a Chicago drone enthusiast seeking his exemption.

Founder of JJack Productions, Jackola uses his three drones to capture aerial footage around the city. He runs a website for his company where he posts his images. However, he cannot use his skill to make money.

“The shots that are on there are shots that I got flying as a hobbyist,” Jackola said. “Taking those shots and putting them up on my website shows ‘Hey this is what we are capable of,’ but if a company contacted me they would ask if I had my 333 Exemption. I would have to tell them I don’t.”

Jackola said he plans to submit his exemption application this month. For more on Jackola and his drones see the video.

Photo at top: Justin Jackola’s DJI Flame Wheel 450 prepares for liftoff. Jackola is one of Chicago’s 353 registered drone enthusiasts. He uses his unmanned aircraft to take aerial photos and videos.(Laura Furr/Medill)