Drone use raises fears over privacy, safety

As privacy concerns continue to swirl around unmanned drones flying close to people’s homes in Greater Victoria, those who operate and sell the camera-equipped devices say it could be very difficult to enforce regulations for hobbyist flyers.

“Privacy is a common-sense courtesy issue,” said David Carlos, a commercial operator who runs Victoria Aerial and Survey, a company that uses drones to take aerial pictures for real estate agents, government agencies and search-and-rescue groups.

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“We shouldn’t have to regulate and have a law for this.”

Carlos has to follow strict guidelines laid out by Transport Canada, including staying at least 30 metres away from people’s private property. If he’s trying to capture pictures of a home for sale, he’ll knock on the doors of neighbouring homes to let people know why he’s there. He also has to provide a detailed explanation of why he’s using the drone, the flight path and times and dates of use.

“I can see the dilemma and the frustration with the recreational world,” Carlos said. “[Commercial operators] have all these regulations, so why don’t they? Especially if they can fly the same equipment.”

Two women in a second-storey condo on Swift Street in downtown Victoria noticed a drone hovering outside their window at 11 p.m. on Tuesday. Serena Lee and Julie French said they felt alarmed seeing the drone hovering outside other second-storey windows before flying away.

Earlier that day, an Oak Bay woman called police because a man refused to stop flying his camera-equipped drone over her backyard in the Uplands neighbourhood.

Oak Bay police contacted the man and gave him a warning.

Police have the ability to lay criminal charges of mischief, criminal harassment or voyeurism if an individual is found to be invading someone’s personal space or home.

Garnett Rancier, owner of B.C. Shaver and Hobbies on Fort Street, said he sells four-blade quad helicopters equipped with cameras for between $100 and $500. Higher-end models sell online for upward of $1,000. Rancier is reluctant to use the term “drone,” saying it’s being misused and the issue is being blown out of proportion.

“It’s just another sport,” he said, echoing Carlos’s view that people just need to exercise common sense about not invading other people’s privacy. “How do you enforce something like that?”

Michael McEvoy, B.C.’s deputy privacy commissioner, said it’s time for Transport Canada to consider bringing in rules around personal drone use similar to those for commercial operators. The Department of National Defence regulates military drone use.

“Transport Canada recognizes the emergence of this new aviation sector,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement. In June 2010, Transport Canada established a working group with industry stakeholders to consider amendments to existing regulations, the department said.

Carlos said the safety issues provide a more compelling argument for regulations than privacy concerns.

Certain drones weigh several kilograms and have blades sharp enough to seriously injure someone if the operator loses control, he said.

There are many positive possibilities for drone use, Carlos said, such as dropping off medication or supplies to remote areas in the event of an emergency, searching for a lost child or hunting for a gunman on the loose.

“We’re really at the Wright Brothers’ stage in the UAV [unmanned aviation vehicle] world,” he said.

“But any technology can be abused. There will always be a fringe of people in our world who take something like that and seek to be irresponsible with it.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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