News / Calgary

City drones: UAV taking on dangerous tasks, giving Calgary police a new view

Not just for hobbyists anymore, the City of Calgary and police have taken to the skies

Sgt. Colin Foster and his drone "Starbuck" one of the police's small fleet of drones.

Elizabeth Cameron/ for Metro

Sgt. Colin Foster and his drone "Starbuck" one of the police's small fleet of drones.


Hot on the Christmas list this year for hobbyists, photographers and tech nerds, the powerful toys aren’t just for weekend flights. 

The City of Calgary and police are both flying to new heights with the small, but useful machines, where they’re finding have exciting applications in their everyday jobs. 

Imagine a fatal car crash. As police tape off the area to reconstruct what led to the carnage, their crash investigation vehicles are each equipped with a drone. They deploy it and see a birds-eye angle.

 “Getting an aerial view of a collision scene, we can see things we can’t see at ground level – generally tire marks, paths traveled by vehicles,” Calgary Police Service traffic Section Sgt Colin Foster.

He said last year they deployed a UAV for a collision and saw a painted square on the pavement the three investigators had missed.

Of course, police have the luxury of using HAWCS, but Foster points out the helicopter has higher priorities, is costly to operate and often booked up. 

So far, officers have mostly used their crafts in the traffic unit, but Foster noted they’ve successfully deployed their flying machine for a missing persons case, where it was used in a park.

“The biggest thing is, in order for us to fly we have to be able to control the area,” Foster said. 

Both police and the city have versions of Special Flight Operations Certificates, which allow them to legally operate their crafts. Police’s certificate has fewer limitations than the city’s because they have the power to secure areas and ensure civilians aren’t put in harm's way. 

Foster is quick to note that a large chunk of Calgary is actually under the airport’s “control zone” – translated as a no-fly zone for most other operators.

But it’s not as simple as going up, flying and landing.

Calgary police have been investigating drone use since 2013, but only started deploying the UAVs in 2015.

Elizabeth Cameron/ for Metro

Calgary police have been investigating drone use since 2013, but only started deploying the UAVs in 2015.

Bruce Cullen, director of Corporate Analytics & Innovation with the city explains they have to log each of their flights and notify nearby airports before take-off, reporting back to Transportation Canada in order to keep their certificates in good standing.

His department within the city has a more sophisticated drone, they use it for surveying and data collection, so it’s equipped with numerous sensors – including one that can read infrared light.

He said for the city, this machine is delivering value.

“Drones can do certain types of jobs a lot quicker, and more accurately,” Cullen said. “We’re using it to provide images, location and condition data of assets, landfill, gravel pile volumes and other information to different departments.” 

They aren’t just taking to the skies. For Cullen the city would send two people out in a rowboat to collect samples. But now those employees can safely steer an unmanned boat to collect without once leaving the shore. 

It’s a small fleet, but as the city finds new ways to use them, their drone army is slowly growing. Cullen said they may be looking into another survey drone, which isn’t cheap at approximately $20,000 a pop.

In the parks department, Todd Reichardt said they are continuously exploring new and exciting ways to use their two drones. 

Flying can help them take high-quality images of the park’s inventory – giving us a view of today’s plant growth and types for the historical archives. And it’s also good at helping the city keep track of invasive weeds. 

He said if the city had had drones in the days or years before Snowtember, they would have a much more accurate view of how much tree cover was truly lost.

“That would be the type of thing we deploy these drones for, especially for a disaster,” Reichardt said. “We would want to see the effects right away.”

Courtesy/ Calgary Police

Drone rules you might not know about:

Turns out you can't just buy an unmanned aerial vehicle and launch into flight, gathering cool visuals of Calgary's downtown. 

There's actually quite a few rules for hobbyists to obey before they consider taking to the skies. 

Nearly three-quarters of the city is actually a no-fly zone because of our proximity to the Springbank and Calgary International Airport. That means regardless of size and weight, you can't fly in the area – and if you do you could face a large fine.

The city also has two bylaws that dictate drones aren't allowed over parks or roads. If caught you could face a $100 fine or court appearance. 

You can't fly at night, or if it's foggy out, and it has to remain in sight while in the air.

So, when can you fly? The only advice from the city is to get permission from a landowner (including the city) before taking to the skies.

For more information visit the Calgary Police website.

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