Unmanned air vehicles, popularly called drones, are everywhere — or soon will be. They are remote-control aircraft ranging from $17-million Reapers, used by the U.S. in military attacks, to $150 toys launched by hand in back yards. Already used for a variety of purposes, they are proliferating as technological advances make them more affordable and capable, raising concerns for safety and privacy.
Regulation needs to catch up to technology, but more important, so do common sense and courtesy.
This came to the fore recently when several complaints were filed with Oak Bay police about small remote-control aerial devices hovering near homes. These were being flown by recreational users, but as many of the small aircraft carry cameras, people were naturally concerned about invasion of privacy.
Radio-controlled model airplanes have been around for almost a century, but these craft have traditionally required a certain amount of space for takeoffs and landings. Many of today’s remote-control devices have multiple rotors, can be launched by hand and can fly anywhere.
Aerial photography, once an expensive service, is within almost any budget now. Real-estate companies and contractors routinely use UAVs to capture views that were once impossible. These aircraft can operate in environments that would be dangerous to humans. They are relatively inexpensive to operate and can stay aloft for hours.
Apart from military uses, UAVs can be used to assess wildlife habitat, gauge the health of forests, search for missing persons, monitor borders and patrol coastlines. Police are already using small models for surveillance and to record crime and accident scenes. Amazon and Google are working to develop models that can automatically deliver parcels to your door.
The devices have also generated enthusiasm among hobbyists, and therein lies the potential for problems. Like any technology, it can be misused. Thieves can case your backyard to see what is worth taking. Peeping toms can use their remote-control toys to get their kicks. Governments could use the technology to keep track of citizens in ways that violate accepted rights to privacy.
Even used innocently, they can become nuisances and hazards. Some are large enough to cause injury if they collide with a human. They could be distracting along busy roads and hazardous to air traffic.
But those concerns shouldn’t be overblown, says David Carlos, operator of operator of Victoria Aerial Photos and Survey, a company that uses drones to take aerial pictures for real estate agents, government agencies and search-and-rescue groups.
Transport Canada regulations govern commercial use of UAVs, including a rule stipulating that the aircraft must stay at least 30 metres away from private property. Recreational model aircraft are not covered by those regulations, but most models used by hobbyists are too light to cause serious injury, and those that carry cameras don’t have the capability of high-quality photos, Carlos said.
He said privacy is important, but drones are no more intrusive than telescopes and cameras. “Anybody with any kind of equipment can spy on you,” he said. “That’s a morality issue.”
While current laws should be tweaked to take into account evolving technology, it’s people’s behaviour that matters most.
“Why fly a drone over someone’s back yard?” said Carlos. “Stay in a nice field, in an open area and have fun. Be respectful.”
While that drone hovering over your home would not likely be something that can read a postage stamp from 10 kilometres away, it can still be disturbing. Recreational users of UAVs need to keep that in mind if they don’t want to face a raft of new regulations.
The drones flying around Greater Victoria might not be watching us, but we should be watching them.