Drones work the skies for police, scientists, media
Unmanned aircraft are already being used in Canada for police crime scene investigations and wildlife research. Border patrol agents and the media in the U.S. are also beginning to use such tools, which the public largely associates with the military.
But non-military drones have many other potential uses, including surveillance. What are the privacy risks and implications?
RCMP Sgt. Dave Domini, who is based in Regina, said on CBC Radio's The Current that the national police force currently has 19 small unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as part of a program that launched in December 2010.
He doesn't like calling them drones.
"When people refer to drones, they think of Afghanistan and Iraq and missiles hanging off things flying around and that's just not what we're doing here," he said.
Domini said the RCMP uses UAVs for search and rescue, emergency response, and taking photographs during crime scene investigations.
"We can get really good digital pictures of the entire scene in one or two photographs," he added.
David Bird, a professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, uses a UAV to count birds and polar bears. The electric-powered aircraft is so quiet that "you can fly it over a bird colony and the birds won't even know it's there," he said.
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said UAVs are a useful tool that can provide a bird's eye view of situations that may be dirty, dangerous, difficult or dull and at as little as 1/30th the price of manned aircraft — around $50 per hour.
That makes them affordable even to people like Tim Pool, an independent journalist who has used a remote-control helicopter to shoot video footage of protests and rallies and broadcast it live. That could potentially allow journalists to keep an eye on protests where police are barring media access.
Chantal Bernier, assistant privacy commissioner of Canada, said drones have the potential to allow for covert surveillance and the extent of surveillance they can conduct is remarkable.
Currently, she said, there is no evidence that UAVs have been used in Canada for surveillance or to gather personal information. However, she added, if anyone wants to use the aircraft that way, they must abide by Canadian privacy laws that require them to demonstrate a need for that kind of surveillance and show how they will be accountable for securing the information once they get it.
But Pool said he prefers opening up access to the use of UAVs, rather than restricting it with rules.
"We feel that this is an opportunity to bring this power of aerial surveillance or 'sous-veillance' to individuals, so that large organizations, government or corporations aren't the only ones with the ability to get an eye in the sky," he said. "If there's any restriction, it would probably only end up restricting individuals who are trying to use it as a balance."