No robot eyes in the skies over G20

The billion-dollar G20 security detail will be using all kinds of high-tech surveillance devices during the summit in Toronto this weekend, but one thing you won't see are robotic drones patrolling the skies.

Transport Canada rules don't yet allow drones over cities

The billion-dollar G20 security detail will be using all kinds of high-tech surveillance devices during the summit in Toronto this weekend, but one thing you won't see are robotic drones patrolling the skies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are used for everything from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan to monitoring drug smugglers on the Manitoba-North Dakota border, but so far Transport Canada has banned their use over populated areas.

"That's not going to happen any time soon, and it's not something I would advocate," said Marc Sharpe, identification constable for the Ontario Provincial Police's forensic services unit in Kenora, Ont.

"There are so many better uses than to run headlong into controversial uses."

Sharpe, referred to by colleagues as the godfather of UAVs in Canada, built his own drone and was the first in the country to get clearance for their use.

Federal aviation authorities currently allow drones only in remote, sparsely populated areas. Using them over cities is out of the question for the time being, Sharpe said.

Sharpe routinely uses remote-controlled drones in Northern Ontario for forensic purposes, flying them over crime scenes and accident sites to take photos and sometimes video.

Drones cheaper than renting aircraft for police

The OPP's UAVs, which cost about $30,000 each, are cheaper to use than leasing air time for planes and helicopters, which usually runs between $1,000 and $1,600 an hour. The two used by the OPP since 2007 are a model known as the Draganflyer X6 built by Saskatoon-based Draganfly Innovations, which are controlled remotely by a ground operator with a line of sight to it.

The OPP has used them in about 30 cases over the past three years and has saved between $2,000 and $3,000 on each occasion, Sharpe said.

Non-military UAVs are a new phenomenon so no rules exist yet for them, which means federal authorities apply traditional aviation rules. Getting clearance from Transport Canada to use them for simple forensic tasks was a difficult struggle that took Sharpe three years to negotiate, he said.

The OPP was the first police force in North America to get federal clearance to use UAVs, he said, and only about a half dozen enforcement agencies are currently using them.

The Draganflyers, which resemble miniature helicopters, have a host of restrictions to work under: they must fly below 122 metres and only in daylight and good weather, and they can't operate within roughly nine kilometres of an airport or over populated areas.

"We can't take it and fly it out over people," Sharpe said.

OPP wants UAVs for search and rescue

Flying the drones over cities, an idea that has been popularized in movies and television series such as 24, is perhaps "decades away," Sharpe said, because of the potential risks of one crashing and injuring people. Using them for surveillance at the G20 in Toronto would also have been foolish because of the likely controversy that would have resulted.

"It would probably be more of a flashpoint than an advantage," Sharpe said. "What you might gain from it might cause you more grief at this stage because somebody would see it and run with it. They'd be looking for the Predators [armed UAVs used in Afghanistan] and all that stuff. There's little to be gained, lots to be lost."

Holly Brown, an Air Force captain and spokesperson for the G20 Integrated Security Unit, said the summit's security detail is already flying helicopters over Toronto, with jet fighters on standby, so UAVs aren't needed.

"It's not required, we're covered," she said. The North American Aerospace Defense Command "remains willing and able to meet all the security requirements."

A spokesperson for Canada's spy agency, CSIS, declined to comment when asked whether the agency will be using drones during the summit.

Sharpe is heading to Ottawa next week to work with a group that is looking to write the rules for UAV use. He expects it'll be at least a decade before any laws are passed, although law-enforcement agencies are likely to continue getting exemptions if they can keep showing cost savings and a clean safety record.

Although unarmed Predator drones were deployed in 2009 by U.S. Homeland Security to monitor the border with Manitoba, police forces typically have less ominous uses in mind, he said.

The OPP would like permission to use the UAVs for search-and-rescue operations, searching for missing persons with the help of infrared cameras, explosives disposal and gun calls, where police are summoned to subdue armed individuals.

And what about the armed UAVs over New York, as seen on 24?

"I can't see it happening in my lifetime," Sharpe said.