Why some first responders want to change the drone rules — and why not everyone agrees

In 2019, the federal government adopted regulations to govern the use of drones in Canadian airspace. Now there's a push to update those rules and fly drones beyond a human's range of eyesight — but not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

Calls emerge to update federal 'line-of-sight' regulations to assist in some emergencies

Here is one of two drones police in Kingston, Ont., used on Sept. 12 to locate a non-verbal 80-year-old man missing in a forest near the city's police station. (Kingston Police Service)

By the time Const. Josh Brimble was called in, darkness had descended on the forest, and hours had passed since anyone had seen the missing 80-year-old hiker.

An officer in the Kingston Police Service's traffic safety unit, Brimble was also in charge of the force's two drones.

He fired up the smaller of the two, sent it skyward, but couldn't spot the man. He then sent out the larger one, equipped with a thermal camera and an illuminated beacon, normally used for traffic collision reconstruction.

The man — who was non-verbal and only communicating with police by text message — was found soon after.

"He was actually in very good spirits for an older gentleman. And he actually wasn't that bad off, and he was actually able to walk out of the area," Brimble said a few days after the rescue last month.

"But he walked in pretty far."

Had the man hiked in even further — or had he disappeared in one of the more remote parts of the province — those drones might not have been as helpful due to Transport Canada rules requiring them to stay within the "visual line-of-sight."

Calls to update the rules

In 2019, the federal government adopted a wide range of strict regulations governing the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in Canadian airspace — rules that applied to both professionals and hobbyists.

Among the regulations: drones would, unless an exemption was granted, have to always stay within eyesight of a human being.

Many drones, however, are capable of flying eight, 10, even 15 kilometres, said Andy Olesen, a now-retired police officer who launched the Halton Regional Police Service's drone program in 2009, one of the first licensed by the federal government.

Infrared image captured by drone.
This is an infrared image from the camera aboard a drone used to locate the missing man in Kingston. (Kingston Police Service)

"If you don't have to maintain line of sight, that opens up the areas where you can fly," said Olesen, who recently joined Hydro One as their drone co-ordinator, and is among the industry stakeholders consulting Transport Canada on the rules.

Olesen said adjusting the line-of-sight rule would open up new possibilities for police like using drones to peek around corners in dangerous tactical situations, or to search sites where there is a risk of fire or an explosion.

"It could save a potential victim's life. But also, for the first responders, if it minimizes their exposure to a danger or a hazard, then it saves lives on both ends," said Olesen.

"It's much better to put a drone in the line of fire."

The current rules are "problematic in an emergency situation," Const. Mike Adlard, a pilot and program administrator with the Ottawa Police Service's emergency services unit, wrote in an internal document the force provided to CBC.

"Many UAVs are capable of flying significant distances away, but the current regulations prohibit this," Adlard wrote. "Our hope is that the federal government is able to recognize the differences in what emergency services are compelled to do and what the enthusiast should not do." 

CBC asked Ottawa police for an interview with Adlard, but the request was declined.

Andy Olesen poses with a drone he used to map the La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, a few months after it exploded in April 2021. (Darren Keuhl)

Risk of technology 'creep'

Transport Canada will occasionally issue exemptions if it's in the public interest and the exemption won't hamper aviation safety, a spokesperson said in a statement to CBC.

Two have been issued to the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police, the agency said, granting them "additional flexibility" in situations where there could be "an immediate risk to human life." Both exemptions were issued after reviewing their safety and training procedures around drones, Transport Canada said.

A general loosening of the line-of-sight rules — even for an "unimpeachable" reason like finding a missing person — could lead to ethical conundrums down the road, said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

"What we see [is that] the door to a use of a potentially controversial technology gets opened for a purpose that is extremely defensible," said McPhail.

There's the risk of creep. It worked really well for search-and-rescue, now we want to track this individual — would it work just as well for that?- Brenda McPhail, Canadian Civil Liberties Association

"The risk is, of course, once you start using this technology for that wonderful, effective purpose ... there's the risk of creep. It worked really well for search-and-rescue, now we want to track this individual — would it work just as well for that?"

One issue the line-of-sight rule addresses is "public accountability," McPhail said, with people on the ground able to spot who's flying the drone, be it a police officer or someone else.

Drones can also be equipped with a wide range of surveillance technology, potentially allowing people's images to be captured from kilometres away, McPhail said.

If the rules are altered, one idea could be to limit extended drone use to rescue operations in rural or remote areas, she said.

One piece of rationale for maintaining line-of-sight rules for drones is so people on the ground can see who's operating the aircraft and adjust their behaviour accordingly, said Brenda McPhail with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Questions around training

Transport Canada is currently getting input on line-of-sight rules from emergency services and other stakeholders, said Olesen, with public input likely sought in the spring of 2022.

Olesen said he's confident updated rules will come sometime next year, with the big question surrounding training and certification needed for drone pilots.

"That's basically what we're going to present to Transport Canada, from the emergency side: how would we qualify our operators? Because you can't just do a couple of laps around a parking lot and say you're qualified," he said.

"If the risks are increased, the training has to reflect [that]."