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Illinois National Guard photo via Medill

The Illinois National Guard currently conducts training flights of its unmanned aerial drone, the Shadow, from two Illinois locations. 

Aerial drones set to intrude on Illinois airspace

by Nolan Peterson
April 19, 2012

 A controversial technology from the war on terrorism may soon be a common sight in Illinois skies.

A bill signed by President Obama in February has accelerated the timetable for the domestic use of aerial drones, also known as UAVs – opening U.S. airspace to unmanned flight by 2015.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department said Sheriff Thomas Dart has been eyeing this military technology since July 2011. The Illinois National Guard said it is already conducting training flights of its Shadow drone within Illinois airspace.

“The use of drones on domestic operations requires approval by the Secretary of Defense,” said Maj. Brad Leighton, Illinois National Guard public affairs director. “We currently have the authority to operate training missions out of two locations within Illinois.”

Drone use by law enforcement remains under review in Illinois.

“We are actively investigating the potential use of drones,” said Nora Sheahan of the Sheriff’s Department. “The benefit of drones is that they can operate at lower altitudes and for much longer than helicopters, and they are much quieter.”

The push to integrate this war-fighting tool in U.S. airspace has privacy advocates on edge, including Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

“We’re talking about the domestic use of a surveillance technology that was introduced in foreign wars; that alone should give us pause,” Yohnka said. “Drones are unique, they can stay in the air longer than helicopters and unlike security cameras you can spy on people in a stealthy way without them ever knowing. There is a certain invasiveness and creepiness about it.”

The ACLU has called on the Federal Aviation Administration to extend its regulations on drone use to include privacy protections.

“We are very concerned because there doesn’t seem to be any restrictions or regulations with respect to privacy,” Yohnka said. “There is a headlong rush to using drones, and once you have this technology, if you don’t have the appropriate guidelines in place, it invites the potential for abuse – the potential for great abuse.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity from Washington, an FAA official said the administration’s primary mission is the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the same airspace as manned flight.

“We are concerned about what drones are doing only if it impacts the safety of other aircraft or people on the ground,” the official said. “Other agencies and laws are responsible for regulating surveillance technology.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that police do not need warrants to observe private property from public airspace.

The FAA said that midair collision avoidance technology, referred to as sense and avoid, is a mandatory safety requirement for the approval of domestic drone flights.

“There currently is no available sense and avoid technology that satisfies FAA requirements,” the FAA official said. “We evaluate waivers on a case-by-case basis to ensure there will be no interference to other aircraft.”

According to the FAA, 94 waivers have so far been issued to unnamed operators.

The Illinois National Guard said the two training locations for its Shadow drone were chosen because of their separation from population centers.

“Like any equipment, we need to train on it, and it makes sense to do that training in Illinois,” Leighton said. “We recognize the safety concerns so we’re not flying over neighborhoods; we usually stick to soybean fields.”

The Guard acknowledged potential privacy concerns but added that the surveillance technology carried by drones is no different than what is currently used by manned aircraft.

“The primary concern with UAVs is safety of flight, privacy is secondary,” Leighton said. “Our helicopters have the same capabilities; the only advantage to using a UAV is how long they can stay in the air.”

Unmanned drones have become a staple for military surveillance and precision strike operations in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The defense department plans to increase its fleet of drone aircraft by 45 percent over the next 10 years, according to a defense department report.

According to the FAA, in the U.S. alone, approximately 50 companies, universities and government organizations are developing and producing more than 155 unmanned aircraft designs.

When asked if 2015 was a realistic target for the safe use of drones in U.S. skies, the FAA official said,

“We’re confident that we’ll achieve a measure of safe integration by that date. We’re working with manufacturers to make that happen.”

The FAA is currently consulting with NASA and the Department of Defense to select six U.S. locations for unmanned test flights.