Windsor police to launch drone unit this September

There are plans by Windsor Police Service to launch a six-person unmanned aerial system unit by September 2019, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Drone would likely be used at crime scenes and firearms/weapons calls, police say

Drones come in a variety of sizes, with different licences available for their operation. (Anthony Germain/CBC News)

Windsor police are planning to launch an unmanned aerial system (UAS) unit this fall, CBC News has learned.

According to documents obtained through a municipal freedom of information request, Windsor police have already acquired a drone, as well as conducted flight training for a six-person team that will comprise the unit.

The UAS unit is intended to be a support unit, and the service's drone would be used in "locations that citizens would not have an expectation of privacy, such as public areas."

The drone would likely be used at crime scenes and firearms/weapons calls, as well as for traffic reconstruction, the search and rescue of missing and wanted persons and natural or manmade disasters or accidents.

"In these incidents, the police are responding to an emergency and are clearly visible to the public," wrote Staff Sgt. Sue Garrett, in a letter to CBC News.

Drone supplied by Aeryon Labs

Windsor police acquired a drone from Waterloo-based Aeryon Labs on Jan. 19, 2019, and conducted Aeryon-guided training between April 16 and April 18, 2019.

The training package was included in the cost of purchasing the Aeryon Labs device. The company provided Windsor police with a technical support specialist in unmanned systems and integrated solutions for training. 

Garrett wrote that training was conducted at the Major F.A. Tilston Armoury Police and Military Training Centre at 4007 Sandwich Street.

"The training including a theory component and practical component," wrote Garrett.

"The practical component was the first time the unit has operated our UAS. Everyone selected for the unit successfully completed the course."

It's worth noting that Windsor police didn't specify the drone model acquired from Aeryon Labs, though Garrett said that there are "14 police services in Ontario that currently deploy the same UAS purchased by [Windsor police]."

An image of an Aeryon Labs drone. Windsor police failed to disclose the specific model of drone purchased from Aeryon. (Aeryon Labs)

Ontario Provincial Police, Peel Regional Police and Waterloo Regional Police all own drones purchased from Aeryon Labs.

Windsor police also failed to disclose the cost of their Aeryon Labs drone. 

Thunder Bay police have had an Aeryon Labs drone since the summer of 2018.

According to Thunder Bay police media coordinator Scott Paradis, their drone cost $89,699 — a figure that doesn't include the cost of training or the cost of actually using the drone.

Thunder Bay police Sgt. Gordon Snyder, who heads the service's traffic unit and drone unit, said that he's aware that there's a significant cost associated with the implementation of a drone, but that the costs are worth it.

"The potential for it to to offer you a life saving service is there," he said. 

Unit in development since at least Jan. 2019

Documents show that Windsor police had been discussing the UAS unit since at least January 2019.

An initial list of candidates was finalized on Feb. 20, 2019.

Garrett wrote that all members of the UAS unit passed Transport Canada's online advanced operations certificate course for drone operators on March 20, 2019.

"All members of the unit have also reviewed the Canadian Aviation Regulation," she wrote.

Garrett explained that once pilots have passed both exams, they can apply for a Transport Canada Special Flight Operator Certificate — a certificate required for pilots who want to fly drones under circumstances outside of Transport Canada's rules for basic or advanced operations. 

Garrett added that the UAS unit's team leader met with Windsor International Airport's controller on April 26, 2019.

"This is a result of our close proximity to the Windsor International Airport during possible deployment," she wrote.

"The team will work with the Windsor International Airport to ensure the safety of our community."

Privacy concerns remain

Despite Windsor police's assurances that the force's drone would be used in public settings, experts, like University of Windsor law professor Kristen Thomasen, still have concerns.

In addition to wanting more nuisance addressing how Windsor police plans on maintaining individual privacy even when the drone is used in public spaces, Thomasen also explained that she's concerned about "mission creep."

According to Thomasen, mission creep is "the idea that a technology that's adopted for one purpose or a small group of purposes can then be expanded into other more invasive uses or potentially invasive use."

Thomasen explained that a common theme with automated technologies is that there's a possibility that tools with defined use-cases can be adapted for other situations.

"There's that possibility that the technology actually extends into other areas where we start to get into concerns around civil liberties and our Charter rights being violated," she said.

Kristen Thomasen says she's concerned about privacy, as well as "mission creep." (CBC Windsor)

For his part, Ontario's information and privacy commissioner Brian Beamish said that Windsorites could contact his office to voice their concerns.

He explained that Windsor police are subject to the same Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act as all other Ontario municipal law enforcement agencies.

"It sets the rules for what government organizations can do in terms of collecting, using and disclosing personal information," he said.

Still, Beamish explained that the Act does allow law enforcement quite a bit of discretion, though he added that law enforcement powers are not unlimited.

"The collection of personal information has to be done for … a legitimate specific law enforcement purpose," explained Beamish.

However, Beamish explained that the use of drones for crowd control purposes — where hundreds or potentially thousands of people could get recorded — would still be a legitimate purpose.

The collection of personal information has to be done for … a legitimate specific law enforcement purpose.- Brian Beamish, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario

Beamish provided a hypothetical situation of drones used to control crowds during the June 17, 2019 Toronto Raptors victory parade.

"By doing that they're quite likely going to collect people's identity or identifiable pictures of people," he said,

"But if it's tied to a law enforcement purpose like that, then I think that's still legitimate."

According to Beamish, the use of drones by Ontario law enforcement hasn't yet fallen within the category of illegitimacy. 

Beamish said that his office would be concerned if it appeared that law enforcement agencies were using drones for "general surveillance purposes not tied to a legitimate incident or a specific investigation."

Beamish pointed to Waterloo Regional Police as a force that appropriately deploys their drone unit.

"If you go on their website, it tells you exactly what they have and how they will use it," he said. 

With files from Katerina Georgieva