Nfld. & Labrador

Creepy camera: Drone over backyard raises questions about rules

Drones can capture beautiful sights once reserved for the birds, but what happens when that view is of your backyard?
Drones are becoming a popular toy but what about when they intrude on an individual's privacy? (Terry Reith/CBC)

We heard it before we saw it. That whine of blades slicing through the air like a whipper snipper through grass. 

My husband and I exchange a look, a mixture of 'Oh no, not again' and 'You've got to be kidding me.' 

Then it appears, that creepy roving eyeball with free rein of the neighbourhood. Instead of coasting through our backyard as those machines typically do, this one stops. It stops as abruptly as a Road Runner hitting its mark on a cliff's edge. Then, it actually backs up, and hovers, about 10 feet in front of and above our patio, and our faces. 

We look at it. It looks at us. It feels like a bizarre staring contest with a Peeping Tom emboldened by anonymity. 

My husband puts down the drill he was using to assemble fence post ornaments — handiwork I thoroughly enjoy supervising — and he slowly walks over to face this strange intruder. I stay sitting in my chair, dog cuddled in my lap, the peaceful afternoon rudely interrupted. 

As the drone lingers, I feel strangely exposed. It's unnerving, disconcerting, infuriating. Looking at it, I shake my head back and forth to simply say 'Not cool, creepy camera lens. Not ... cool.'

Where's a broom when you need one?

Once it had an eyeful of us, it darts away into the sky.

Playing catch-up

Visits from drones in our downtown St. John's backyard have become alarmingly frequent. Normally they just whip past, on the way to somewhere else. But this experience made me wonder: what's stopping a determined drone operator from snooping? From peeping in windows? Turns out, not much.

There aren't a lot of rules ... so we've been looking into that.- Aaron McCrorie, Transport Canada

Transport Canada is still playing catch-up with this technology. Right now, the regulations are limited.

"That's just it, there aren't a lot of rules," said Aaron McCrorie, Director General for Civil Aviation at Transport Canada. "It's essentially saying 'fly safe', and so we've been looking at that." 

Transport Canada does spell out what it means to "fly safe" on its web site, and McCrorie encourages drone operators to review these guidelines.

"We ask them to stay about nine kilometres [away from an airport], stay below 90 metres — about a 30 story building — stay about 150 metres away from people and buildings, and only fly in good weather during the day." 

But suppose my backyard intruder already knew those rules? What good are rules without teeth? It's fine to ask people to follow the guidelines, and no doubt most people do, but what about the people who don't? McCrorie says there are consequences ... if you're caught.

"If you're not willing to do the right thing, we want to take action against those people." 

Signs warn drones to stay away from the harbour in Victoria. They are also not permitted near airports. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Cold comfort though when the trespasser is entirely out of reach. McCrorie says all you can do is report the bad behaviour to and maybe trigger an investigation by Transport Canada or local police. 

"Depending on the nature of what they're doing, there could be a $5,000 fine but if they are posing a risk or endangering the safety of an aircraft in the sky, the fine could be up to $25,000 or a prison term."

Other laws apply as well. Just because the drone is in the air, and the operator far away, doesn't mean they're not trespassing on your property.

"People still have a responsibility to respect all the other laws that are out there," said McCrorie. "So there are privacy laws in place, trespassing laws in place. The fact that you're operating under the Aeronautics Act doesn't absolve you of the responsibility to respect those other laws as well."

Tighter restrictions coming

Transport Canada is promising that change is coming. It plans to introduce a new set of restrictions some time next year.

McCrorie said they will take a "risk-based approach." That means the restrictions will vary depending on the location and hazards. So if you're flying a drone in a rural area with no airport and few people, you'll have more breathing room than in a city. 

Commercial use of drones includes crop surveying, search and rescue, site inspection, high-end real estate photography and film cinematography. (Naomi Tajitsu/Reuters)

"They are going to be requirements around age restrictions, the need to undertake a knowledge test, to demonstrate that you understand what the rules are. For more complex operations you're going to need some kind of pilot permit. We're going to ask that all devices be marked in some way so that we can track people down if they are being used inappropriately."

Transport Canada is also looking at giving more enforcement power to local police through the Aeronautics Act.

We'll see how well it all works in practice, but from now on, I'll keep the broom handy, just in case. 


Carolyn Stokes


Carolyn Stokes is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and frequently cohosts Here & Now.