News / Canada

Canada's police forces take to the sky with drones

Halton Regional Police have used their drone to search for missing persons, probe collisions, and investigate an armed robbery and homicide. In 2012, the drone even helped officers find about $744,000 worth of marijuana that was growing on a farmer’s field in Milton, Ont.

Halton police first purchased a drone (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, as they are known in the industry) to use in their investigations in 2009, when it was still a relatively new technology in law enforcement. Since then, it has been used in 50 police missions, according to now-retired operation manager Det. Dave Banks.

“We don’t just sort of fly over homes at random,” says Const. Andy Olesen. “Well, we can, and we don’t.”

Today, with many police forces in major cities in Canada now using drones, concerns have been growing over privacy and surveillance. Olesen says Halton police are very cautious about the use of its drone given those concerns.

“We’re very conscious of ... what people’s perception of it is, that it’s a surveillance tool,” he explains. “We don’t want to make that any worse than it is.”

Halton’s Aeryon Scout model is a black and white quadcopter remotely controlled with a tablet laptop using Google maps. It is relatively small in size, and comes equipped with video and photo capabilities.

Olesen says Transport Canada regulations limit where and how they can fly their UAV and the drone itself offers physical boundaries. It can only be flown in good weather conditions, and its battery life leaves much to be desired, averaging about 15 to 20 minutes per charge.

“On the list of things we use it for, surveillance isn’t even on our list, just because it’s not practical,” Olesen says.

“Down the road, (surveillance) might be possible,” he says. “I think that’ll happen.”

Halton police use its Scout drone to investigate accidents by recreating crash sites.

Who patrols the patrollers?

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) has raised various concerns regarding drone use in law enforcement. Highlighted in a March 2013 report, the privacy watchdog has noted that “certain attributes can make (drones) a relatively covert form of surveillance.”

Tobi Cohen, spokeswoman for the agency, tells Metro that current regulations do not address the sometimes wide gap that results from “issues related to purpose and the privacy implications of (drone) use.”

“Current regulations governing drone operations have more to do with ensuring their safe flight, and do little to address the privacy implications of having Canadian skies filled with hovering data-collecting robots,” Cohen says.

When it comes to drones, people don’t always know who is watching or what data they’re collecting. This “can contribute to a lack of awareness and effective complaint mechanisms,” Cohen says.

To that end, Cohen says the OPC advises law enforcement to comply with their video surveillance guidelines. Among their recommendations, the OPC says law enforcement should use video surveillance in a way that minimizes invasion of privacy, hold public consultations, and assess privacy impacts beforehand.

Drones beyond the law

However, Halifax lawyer David Fraser says the public shouldn’t be worried, as long as the proper regulatory framework is put in place.

It’s a historical fact, Fraser says, that new technology will expand the collection of personal information, which can sometimes lead to what he calls a “technopanic.”

He says privacy laws should be updated to reflect new behaviours that society finds unacceptable.

“You criminalize the behaviour, and not the technology. Because it’s really about the behaviour.”

Fraser adds that drones do create a change in what’s possible in terms of encroachment on privacy. For example, when living in a tall building, there is a higher expectation of privacy on higher floors that with drones will now be accessible for viewing.

As Fraser points out: “The question then becomes: Does the introduction of drones change our expectations of privacy? Or should it?”

When drones are more intrusive on individual privacy, such as collecting information about individuals, “that’s when it’s worth having a good discussion about what our reasonable expectations are,” Fraser says.

“That discussion should always be much more than ‘Oh, well, that’s creepy,’ because a discussion about what’s creepy doesn’t help.”

Military

While the United States continues to make headlines for their use of armed drones, Canada currently has no such things, according to a Department of National Defence spokesman. But that might change.

“We neither operate nor lease armed UAVs,” says Daniel Blouin, a spokesman for the DND, but he added armed drones “are being examined for future international operations.”

“UAVs have unparalleled operating range and endurance,” Blouin says. “If the pilot gets tired you don’t have to return to base and land — you can just swap a new one into the seat.”

Blouin says the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have used unarmed drones in overseas operations since 2003, stressing that the CAF only uses drones in what is called an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity. He adds the current model is limited in that it can’t carry heavy loads, transport personnel, or conduct air-to-air combat. Only one model is in active use by the CAF: the Scan Eagle. Blouin says it is used by the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Navy frigates on international operations, most recently by HMCS Regina in an ISR capacity.

A Halton police officer flies the force's drone - Courtesy Aeryon Labs

A Halton police officer flies the force's drone - Courtesy Aeryon Labs

Police and drones from coast to coast

Toronto: The Toronto Police Department does not deploy drones, but they have had demonstrations from a manufacturer, but would not say which.

Ottawa: Although Ottawa police is not deploying drones right now, their Collisions Section is interested in its uses for aerial surveys of large collisions or investigative scenes as well as uses in missing persons searches.

Winnipeg: Winnipeg police do not use drones, and are not considering their use at this point.

Edmonton: The Edmonton Police Department does deploy a drone to take aerial photographs of accident scenes.

Vancouver: The Vancouver Police Department does not use drones, but they are considering it for the future.

RCMP: Various detachments nationwide have deployed drones for search-and rescue missions, as well as aerial photography of crash scenes.

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