©2020 Jordan Snobelen. All rights reserved. 

  • Jordan Snobelen

Rise of the drone: Canada needs to examine new safety and privacy rules

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker | CC License

A broad range of practical uses and decreasing costs have seen the market for drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), surge since their mainstream introduction roughly six years ago. What was once an obscure combination of innovation and modern technology used mostly by the military has now become a centerpiece of the consumer and commercial tech world moving into 2016.

The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States predicted that around one million drones would be sold during last year’s Christmas season, and at least one local retailers has also reporting high sales last month.

It only takes a quick search on YouTube to see the appeal behind having an eye in the sky. Not only do drones provide a new and fairly cost-effective way to have fun for the recreational user, but companies such as Amazon and Google are touting drones as the future of package delivery. The possibilities are endless as new drone uses emerge and universities and manufacturers test the limits of what a flying robot can do.

Drones today, while still largely utilized by the military, are now being used for everything from recording a day out at the beach, to creating art, tracking rhino poachers, spraying agricultural chemicals and doing mining surveys and safety inspections. They have been featured in car commercials, been the target of bald eagles, had fireworks attached to them, used to deliver contraband over prison walls, and more recently, narrowly missed crashing into downhill ski champion Marcel Hirscher in Italy.

Photography, film, real estate, and agricultural sectors are the top industries joining in on the humming chorus being sung by the airborne robots. There were 2,300 commercial applications to the Canadian government for the use of drones in 2015, up from only 66 in 2010. And the number of applications is only expected to keep going up.

“Drones are just basically an aircraft full of sensors, the same sensors you’d find in your cellphone,” says Jacob Hrycak of Sky High Images, a Waterloo Region company that focuses on capturing aerial photographs for clients with drones.

The development of cellphones helped make drones available to a mass consumer audience. Technology such as gyroscopes and accelerometers found in smartphones make flying relatively easy and enjoyable.

“A GPS is what the backbone of most of these systems and what makes them so easy to fly,” said Hrycak, who wrote his master’s thesis on drones at the University of Ottawa. “I always tell people flying in manual mode is like trying to balance a ball-bearing on the middle of a dinner plate.”

Drones take on a variety of different looks and designs, depending on their intended use. Typical consumer drones generally look like a hybrid between a helicopter and some kind of moonlander. Remote-controlled cameras are also often attached, from a small GoPro camera to a full-size DSLR. While drones are typically used for their birds-eye view, they can also be outfitted to spray crops and deliver lifesaving first aid equipment, such as a defibrillator, or an epi-pen in congested or hard to reach locations.

Steve Gray, owner of Flite Craft, a retail store that sells drones in Kitchener, says people’s confusion lies in differentiating between the toy drones and the more expensive ones. “When they say there’s millions sold, well they’re talking about the little dinky, four-inches in diameter, indoor ones and they’re lumping them together with the big automated ones.”

The retailer has only sold an estimated 20 of its larger, automated drones compared with several hundred of the smaller quadcopters.

“A drone with automation to it, anybody can fly and it basically flies itself, and you can even pre-program a lot of them for a completely automated flight where you sit down at the computer and tell it all the things you want it to do, and then say go and it does it. That’s a whole different thing compared to something you have to have in sight... to be able to control it,” said Gray.

Drones are legally classified as a type of aircraft and thus fall under the purview of Transport Canada and the Canadian Aviation Regulations.

Transport Canada presently has guidelines in place, a list of dos and don’ts, that it recommends for recreational users who fly vehicles under 35 kilograms simply for the “fun of flying.” That phrase embodies the majority of users who received drones as gifts over the recent Christmas season.

These guidelines are not all laws that users must abide by. But there are other areas of legislation that come into play when operating a drone. Users need to be particularly mindful of the Canadian Aviation Regulations, and the Trespass to Property Act, but should also be aware of other potentially applicable laws, such as noise by-laws.

Right now, as soon as a drone is used for anything other than the “fun of flying,” or weighs in at 35 kilograms or over, a new set of rules apply. An application for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) must be obtained from Transport Canada, which are issued on a case-by-case basis, seeking to mitigate and manage potential risks while flying. Once a user is operating under a SFOC, there are hefty fines if the drone is found in violation of its parameters and rules.

While useful, the increase of drones has also become controversial. As these flying robots become cheaper, and more accessible to the average consumer, more are taking off and hitting the skies, which raises a slew of safety and privacy concerns that are mostly new for law enforcement agencies, government and the public. Regulators and industry stakeholders are playing catch-up, trying to modernize the books and adapt to an aggressively-evolving industry that continues to expand each year.

“The biggest challenge for us at Transport Canada is this is a whole new sector of the population. It’s a whole new group that we need to reach out to and educate. If you think of the groups we’ve mostly been involved with over the years, we’re talking about airline pilots... these are people who are extensively trained, licensed, very familiar with the rules and regulations,” said Natasha Gauthier, a spokesperson with Transport Canada. “Drone hobbyists are new to this sector and they may not even know what we mean by ‘airspace’.”

Transport Canada released a notice of proposed amendment in May of last year that looked at revamping regulations for any drones that weigh less than 25 kg and are operated within a visual line of site. The proposed regulations could introduce pilot knowledge testing, registration of the aircraft, and marking of the aircraft, among others.

Transport Canada has not yet compiled all the feedback from industry stakeholders and could not say what changes might be coming for bigger drones.

Law enforcement officials are hoping that any new regulations will also spell out rules to fill in gaps in the present legislation that have, at times, left those who enforce drone incidents scratching their heads when it came to a clear course of action to take.

This was the case in Belleville, Ontario in December, when a drone collided with and damaged a car. Police were left to interpret any applicable laws that might apply to this odd scenario, and finally decided they had no charges to lay. Transport Canada has since taken over, but at the time of writing it remains unclear where their investigation would lead.

New rules are one thing, but just how to enforce them is another. Bob Conners, general manager at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Center told the Independent that several weeks ago there was an incident where a drone came “incredibly close” to a commercial passenger plane that was on approach to land at the Waterloo Region Airport in Breslau.

“The problem with it is, it’s even hard to track down who was flying the thing. So it’s extremely difficult,” Conners said about enforcing safety violations.

It’s not the only incident that the Waterloo Region Airport has seen either. In November of last year, a drone came within three meters of an airplane in flight, which lead to an investigation by police, who were subsequently unable to locate the drone operator.

In 2014,Transport Canada opened 69 investigations into drone-related incidents, and 35 investigations last year between January 1 and July 31. Since 2010, when Transport Canada began tracking regarding drone incidents investigations, the agency has had over 115 incidents. In the past year they have issued 13 fines, typically enforced under the Canadian Aviation Regulations, and related to SFOC violations. The maximum fine that can be imposed for violating controlled airspace or interfering with a manned aircraft is $25,000, and potentially a prison term.

When asked how Transport Canada would investigate and enforce incidents such as the recent Waterloo Region Airport scenario, Gauthier said: “Right now that’s definitely a challenge. By the time the thing happens and it’s reported into us, like tracking down exactly who that person was, where and when it happened can be challenging for sure.” Gauthier was not immediately able to provide details on the scope of investigations but said they are conducted by Civil Aviation Enforcement Officers.

With so many remote-controlled cameras now taking flight, there are also concerns over privacy violations. In 2013, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released a report detailing the potential impacts of increased drone use. That report found that the increased acceptance and proliferation of drones could have a significant impact on how surveillance is conducted, as well as the public’s expectation of privacy. According to Gauthier, Transport Canada is presently working with Privacy Commissioner to factor privacy concerns into its new regulations.

The Independent also spoke with Marcel O’Gorman, an associate professor who runs the Critical Media Lab with the University of Waterloo, and who studies the impact of technology on society and the human condition. He believes that a lot of anxiety surrounding drones can be attributed to increasing privacy concerns from the public with the proliferation of cellphone and security cameras poking into the public sphere. With drones, that fear of constant, unknown surveillance is extended into the sky, he said.

“We have all these anxieties about tech and I think that might be one anxiety [that] is buried deep down in there... It’s not just privacy it’s also this kind of spectre of warfare as well that I think is embedded inside of them,” said O’Gorman.

Mark Aruja, the Chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada (USC), says he believes privacy and safety concerns can be designed and manufactured into drones to prevent problems from occurring down the road.

Aruja would like to see drone companies use technology such as geo-fencing where the drone will not be able to start when it detects a sensitive area, such as an airport, within a certain proximity.

Regardless of any potential pitfalls that could set the industry back, he said drones are here to stay.

“It’s like automated vehicles, this stuff is coming,” Aruja said. “We’re seeing tremendous advancements in technology that are going to change the way we do business and for those who are doing policing and agriculture, it’s here today, and we’re not going back because the results are dramatic.”

The increasing popularity of drones has also created anti-drone products, marketed at those concerned with preserving their privacy. A company in the UK has designed an anti-drone freeze ray, for example, which works by overwhelming the drone with radio signals so that it stalls, and can no longer be controlled by the person flying it.

As the technology industry continues to push the throttle further for innovation and profits, new ideas will continue to challenge the boundaries of the world as we know it.

The “Age of the Drone” is likely far from finished and will continue to challenge legislators to keep pace.

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