It’s a sunny, windless day in a swampy field on Burnaby Mountain, but the muddy water ripples nonetheless as the air fills with a sound like a swarm of bees.
The buzz is actually Andrew Chapman’s SteadiDrone H6X lifting off. The 4.5-kilogram, six-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), with enough battery life to stay aloft 20 minutes, carries a camera and sensors to map the area. On this flight, it will hover 40 metres aboveground.
The founder of Skymount Unmanned Systems is also a film-industry visual-effects expert and licensed pilot. His business collaborator is Mike Morellato, an aerial-survey and mapping specialist with West Coast Geospatial. They shoot high-resolution, bird’s-eye-view images and sell them to everyone from mine owners to grape growers. “It saves them time from doing on-the-ground sleuthing,” Morellato says.
Chapman adds: “When I was first getting into it and you mentioned drones—or UAVs, as we technically prefer, but everyone’s going to call them drones—they’re like: ‘Oh, you doing military stuff or going to be dropping things or spying on people?’
“That’s going to be such an ephemeral issue. No one’s going to be talking about any of that stuff in a few years’ time. We’re just going to be getting on with all the amazing things you can do.”
Drones for a variety of users range in size and price. The United States uses General Atomics’ Predator B drones to patrol borders with Canada and Mexico or bomb suspected terrorists in Yemen. Costing up to $17 million each, the remote-controlled units with 20-metre wingspans can fly up to 27 hours and reach a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet.
On the other end of the UAV scale is the handheld MeCam digital-camera–equipped quadcopter, which developer Always Innovating expects to retail for $50 when it hits the market soon. It created a buzz in more ways than one at Las Vegas’s Consumer Electronics Show in 2013.
The proliferating technology is poised to revolutionize commerce, science, art, public safety, and the media, but will the benefits of the eyes in the skies outweigh the costs?
Mainstream-media coverage of drones exploded last December when Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos unleashed the ultimate trial balloon on TV’s 60 Minutes: he proposed to someday deliver goods via drone. Update: The Federal Aviation Administration stopped baseball’s Washington Nationals from using a drone to shoot photos at their spring-training facility, but on June 8 issued its first overland commercial permit for BP to survey its Prudhoe Bay, Alaska oilfields. The FAA announced test sites in seven states last December as the first step to opening U.S. airspace to commercial drone use. A 2011 FAA forecast said 30,000 could be flying by 2030.
In Canada, drones weighing less than 35 kilograms and used recreationally are considered model aircraft that can be flown up to a height of 400 feet without a Transport Canada special flight operations certificate, but commercial users need that permit and insurance.
Vancouver brothers Jordan and Russ Macnab made skateboarding videos as teenagers and now fly a 1.5-kilogram DJI Phantom quadcopter with a GoPro camera attached to create videos that help them market homes for sale.
“We’ve been trying to go after a higher echelon of properties, and it’s kind of an old boys’ club to tap into,” Jordan said. “So we were trying to think of a way to bring our old marketing and filmmaking background, and we convinced our wives to let us buy the drone.”
Newfoundland’s College of the North Atlantic and Vancouver’s Langara College offer Canada’s only drone journalism courses. Langara instructor Ethan Baron hopes Transport Canada eventually allows daily newsgathering by drone.
Major-market radio and TV stations can afford traffic helicopters, but drones, like Langara’s DJI Phantom 2 Vision, could fit the tight budgets of newspapers that must innovate to stay in business.
“There’s no limit to the types of news events that you can cover using a drone: riots, fires, floods, landslides, pipeline spills, ship-grounding, murder scenes, sporting events,” Baron said during a talk at May’s Canadian Association of Journalists convention at the Holiday Inn Downtown Vancouver. “There is no news event you couldn’t cover better using a drone.”
Drones are not immune to human error, hacking, or software glitches. Baron’s indoor flight demonstration ended when the drone inadvertently flew off course, hit a ballroom window, and crashed. Update: Two days after the conference, on May 12, a drone permitted to shoot an undisclosed TV commercial lost control, hit a building and crashed around West Hastings and Hornby streets. The May 23 Transport Canada preliminary incident report said there was no injury or damage, but "radio interference may have played a role." Without checks and balances, a media drone could distract a firefighter or aggravate a hostage-taker at a crucial moment, Baron said.
“As much as I want to see news media given maximum freedom to use drones to cover news, the potential for an unregulated chaos is so obvious that I have to recognize that there are going to be significant limitations on areas where you can use them and probably on who’s going to be able to operate them in public spaces,” he said.
Today’s fixed-wing drones are the modern descendants of the Kettering Bug aerial torpedo, designed during World War I by U.S. engineer Charles Kettering with help from Orville Wright. Visitors to the Canada Pavilion at Expo 86, Vancouver’s world’s fair on transportation and communication, were awestruck by the Hystar Airship, a Canadian invention that hovered gracefully under Canada Place’s five sails. The Vancouver Canucks later used an orca-shaped unmanned vehicle for several years at Rogers Arena to drop prize envelopes on lucky fans between periods. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, a tethered Rheinmetall surveillance balloon watched over the Whistler Olympic Village. Broadcasters employed drones at slopestyle competitions during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Last September, the Vancouver Planetarium dressed up a drone to look like the conical roof of the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre and flew it near Nat Bailey Stadium during a Vancouver Canadians baseball game. The UFO hoax/publicity stunt gained international media attention.
But it’s not all fun and games.
B.C. government scientists want to use drones to track moose, and an amateur operator demonstrated in early 2012 how a drone could help catch polluters when its camera captured video of pig blood flowing from a meatpacking plant into a Dallas-area river.
“These companies that get away with this stuff won’t be able to because anybody with one of these can go out and catch them,” Chapman said.
Videos from the Quadrotor Dragonfly YouTube channel caught the attention of Transport Canada, not so much for the stunning aerial scenes of Vancouver as for the November-posted midair clip of an Air Canada jet approaching YVR’s north runway.
In another incident, crews of four YVR flights reported a large, remote-controlled helicopter flying too close for comfort on March 29, 2013. The vehicle “posed a serious risk of collision” when it allegedly flew within 100 feet of an Air Canada Airbus A319 arriving from Toronto. The RCMP were unable to find the controller.
Drones are serious business. The Teal Group, an aerospace- and defence-industry analyst, has estimated that worldwide spending on drones will double—from $5.24 billion this year to almost $11.2 billion—by 2020.
Unmanned Systems Canada is the national industry lobby group, and Vancouver’s Westin Bayshore hotel hosted last November’s USC annual convention. Vice-chair Ulrich Jaggi said by phone that more than 50 companies in Canada are solely involved in the business and that Transport Canada received about 1,000 permit applications in the 2013 calendar year. B.C. companies with names like AerialX, Eqquera, and Quaternion are involved in various aspects of research and development, design, manufacture, and deployment of drones. Richmond-based military contractor MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) is the biggest name on the B.C. scene, but the company declined to talk about its drone operations and products for this story.
The Department of National Defence (DND) let $109 million worth of contracts in 2008 to lease ScanEagle drones from Boeing subsidiary Insitu, and Israel Aerospace Industries–built Heron drones from MDA, for use in Afghanistan. Last October, DND announced an $11.3-million contract for MDA to provide hand-launched AeroVironment Raven B drones. MDA also flogs its turnkey drone service to companies that want to monitor forests and oil and gas pipelines.
In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to set up a long-range-drone squadron at the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Goose Bay, Labrador, but that may not happen until 2023. The Canada Border Services Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which includes the Canadian Coast Guard, told the Straight they do not use drones.
Despite the myriad applications and the burgeoning industry, conversations about drones inevitably turn to spying. Transport Canada and the FAA are primarily concerned with safe aviation, not privacy implications.
“Proponents of drones will often draw attention to the benign aspects of drones, such as describing them as no different from manned aircraft, or by focusing attention to the benefits, particularly for research and science such as tracking and predicting weather patterns,” said a March 2013 report for the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner. “However, much of the current policy debates surround the use of drones for certain types of monitoring and surveillance, particularly by law enforcement and for border patrol.”
The report painted a bleak future for citizens wanting to go about their lives inconspicuously. Drones could someday track the route and speed of every vehicle on a street, the movements of individual pedestrians, and when house lights are turned on or off. Facial recognition and licence-plate readers are other possibilities. Federal privacy laws for governments and corporations also apply to drones, but the report expressed concern about recreational use spawning citizen-on-citizen spying.
“This type of technological observation, with its inhuman persistence, is quite different from the type of observation that humans can do. Also, the proliferation of drones could trigger strong reactions or cause a chilling effect in public spaces if everyone felt watched, or potentially watched,” the report said.
RCMP Corporal Robert McDonald, Lower Mainland traffic-services spokesman, said by phone that the Mounties’ drone program is limited by its equipment, permits, and policies. In the current E Division operational manual, the force insists it has no plans to use its Draganflyer drones (based in Nanaimo, Prince George, Kelowna, and Surrey) for covert surveillance, unless it has a warrant or there is an imminent risk to life or safety. Drone permits were issued primarily for use by motor-vehicle-crash investigators, but the RCMP may also use its four B.C. drones, worth $25,000 to $30,000 each, for search and rescue or at major crime scenes.
“I don’t want to use the word toy,” McDonald said of the RCMP’s drones, “but it’s almost to that extent. It’s very small, it’s not that powerful, and the reason why it hasn’t been deployed very often is because of weather conditions.”
The October 8, 2013, permit for E Division headquarters in Surrey runs to October 31, 2014. Flights, which must be within the operator’s line of sight, are limited to 90 metres above ground level in daytime and 30 metres at night, and drones cannot be flown within 30 metres of buildings, vehicles, vessels, or people not associated with the operation.
B.C.’s Justice Ministry canvassed municipal and First Nations police forces in 2013, but none, including the Vancouver police, disclosed plans to follow the RCMP’s lead. (Toronto-based privacy consultants Block G, though, in a November 2013 report on UAV surveillance in Canada, said Vancouver police officers have trained with drones at Washington military facilities.)
In Maple Ridge, Westridge Security is believed to be the first private security outfit in B.C. to receive a permit from Transport Canada. Its president, John Griffiths, thinks drone use should be expanded. His company consulted with B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner about its QAV 540 and DJI F800 units. Griffiths said images will not be recorded on-board but could be from the ground station if requested by authorities. Griffiths also said drones should be on call as a substitute for the RCMP’s patrol helicopters and could help find missing persons. Emergency Management B.C. is expecting a drone proposal from the B.C. Search and Rescue Association.
“These things can fly upwards to 4,000 to 6,000 feet in the air, they can go up to 14 miles away, they’re easy to use as long as the operator knows how to use them,” Griffiths said by phone. “That technology is there, and it should be welcomed.”
But when does an investigation become intimidation? In early March, the Ontario Provincial Police deployed an Aeryon Scout drone above a Mohawk roadblock protesting police inaction on missing and murdered women investigations. On Twitter, the OPP spun it as “an economical way to take pictures. It is a tool used in investigations.”
Police drone use has yet to ignite a major controversy in British Columbia, but next door in Washington state it did when citizens complained in early 2013 about the Seattle Police Department’s two Draganflyers. City hall ordered them grounded, and recently they were shipped off to the Los Angeles Police Department. The controversy was an inspiration to David Taylor, a Republican member of the state legislature, who sponsored a bipartisan bill to ban drones from collecting information that “describes, locates or indexes anything” about a person without a warrant.
“The general public do not like the idea of their government spying on them, whether it be via drones or the metadata collection by the NSA,” Taylor told the Straight.
The bill passed the house and senate before Democrat governor Jay Inslee vetoed it in early April, but Inslee ordered a moratorium on state agencies buying or using drones for 15 months.
“Drones are game-changing technologies, we can’t simply rely on the courts to regulate them,” Shankar Narayan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington’s legislative-affairs director, told the Straight by phone. “This technology gets cheaper; it gets more and more sophisticated in terms of its surveillance capacity and the level of really detailed individualized surveillance in real time. Governments and individual activists need to not run away from the issue, but to confront it head-on and create a coherent statutory scheme.”