Drones increasingly buzzing too close to Canadian airports: reports

WATCH ABOVE: Flying a drone doesn’t mean you’re above the law. Here are some tips for safely and legally operating your drone.

On July 1, 2014, a small Piper PA-31 aircraft departed the Vancouver International Airport en route to Qualicum Beach. Shortly after takeoff, the plane reported a near-miss with an unmanned aerial vehicle. The Piper’s pilot climbed to avoid the UAV, and estimated that the two aircraft passed each other with less than 100 feet between them.

A few days later, on July 5, 2014, multiple aircraft intending to land at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport had their runway changed after pilots spotted a drone in the vicinity. Toronto Police were called.

Incidents involving drone aircraft, as recorded in Transport Canada’s Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) database, climbed significantly in 2014. According to a Global News analysis of the data, there were 38 incidents involving drones in Canadian airspace recorded in 2014, compared to three or fewer every year going back to 2002.

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Most of these incidents are simply reports of drones flying where they shouldn’t: near airports or in flight paths. In a few cases, the incidents are recorded as near-misses between the drone and larger aircraft. And in a few other cases, the drone went out-of-control, crashing or causing damage to nearby property.

CADORS entries are simply initial, unverified reports of aviation incidents, said Transport Canada, and as such, should not be taken as an indication that aircraft were in immediate danger, as there are sometimes mistakes in the data. But the huge increase in reports is cause for some concern, they say.

“Obviously anytime we get an increase in any area, that is a concern and we need to look at that,” said Martin Eley, Transport Canada’s director general of civil aviation. “If someone sees one near an airport, that’s not a good thing, but it doesn’t mean an accident about to happen.”

Pilots are concerned too, said Ian Smith, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association. If an airplane hits a 5 to 15 kilogram object, depending on where the plane was struck, it could cause serious problems, he said.

“We’ve seen what bird damage can do to aircraft,” said Smith. “A bird is a bird. It’s flesh.” A metal or plastic drone would be even worse, he thinks.

“They’ve actually had Canada geese go through the glass. If you’ve got a pilot sitting there and something comes through his windshield, that wouldn’t be good.”

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The takeoff and landing phases are the most critical parts of a flight, he said, and if something were to happen during one of those phases, “now it becomes a critical situation.” Drones and other flying objects aren’t necessarily easy to spot against the varied ground cover of a city, so pilots might not see them until it was too late.

Eley believes that the spike in drone sightings is due in part to a big increase in their popularity. For example, Transport Canada issued 66 permits for commercial operation of UAVs in 2010. In 2014, they issued 1,672. He also believes that because people are more familiar with what a drone is, they are more likely to report drone sightings.

September 27, 2014 – The privately operated de Havilland DHC-2 Mk1 Beaver floatplane, C-FGQF, was en route from the Vancouver Harbour to Squamish when it came close to an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), at 1200 feet. The floatplane was travelling northbound, north of Point Grey, when the UAV was reported just missing one of the DHC-2’s wings. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was advised.

Flight rules

There are rules about flying your drone. With some exceptions depending on the size of the aircraft, if the drone is being used for commercial or research purposes, operators must obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada. This document will set out some regulations on where and how to fly the drone and operators who violate these rules are subject to fines: up to $3,000 for an individual, or $15,000 for a business. Flying without a certificate when you should have one carries even stiffer penalties: up to $5,000 for an individual or $25,000 for a business.

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However, the rules are much looser for recreational drone pilots. As long as their aircraft weighs less than 35 kg, they don’t have to obtain a certificate to fly.

This doesn’t mean they’re off the hook though.

“If you’re flying anything in the airspace, you have the same responsibilities as anyone flying a plane or a helicopter,” said Eley.

That means that legally, all drone operators are responsible for obeying the Canadian Aviation Regulations, which state that no person shall fly a model aircraft “in a manner that is or is likely to be hazardous to aviation safety.”

WATCH: Transport Canada – How to fly a drone or unmanned air vehicle safely

The Criminal Code also has offences involving the dangerous operation of aircraft and endangering the safety of other aircraft. Depending on the nature of the offence, a pilot could be punished by fines or even imprisonment.

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Additionally, trespassing laws and privacy laws still apply. Transport Canada has a list of (unenforceable) safety guidelines for recreational drone pilots on its website, which include things like always keeping the drone within sight, not flying higher than 90 metres, and not flying within 150 metres from people, buildings and vehicles, or within 9 km of an airport.

This last guideline might surprise many drone users: for example, much of Toronto is within 9 km of an airport.

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The pink circles in the map above show areas within 9 km of an airport or heliport, and the City of Toronto is outlined in green.

If one scrupulously followed Transport Canada’s guidelines, the only part of Toronto that’s not off-limits would be Scarborough. And even there, the further guidelines of not flying within 150 metres of people, animals, buildings, structures and vehicles would definitely limit where you could fly your drone while following government guidelines. Transport Canada did not answer questions about whether the 9 km minimum distance from an airport was realistic, though it emphasized that UAV operators are responsible for flying safely and legally. The department is also working on new regulations to help integrate unmanned aircraft into civil airspace.

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Drones and UAVs have no reason to be near airports, said Smith. “That should be a sterile area for aircraft, and when people start neglecting that and that rule, now they are starting to jeopardize, potentially, people’s lives.”

May 12, 2014 – A drone/UAV was being operated in a secure location at 1000 West Hastings and Hornby in downtown Vancouver during filming for a commercial. The UAV was being operated within all guidelines specified in the Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC) and the Open Permit application. At some point during the flight of the UAV, control was lost and it hit a building and fell to the street. The UAV landed between the sidewalk and a car (production vehicle). There was were no injuries, no visible damage to the building and only slight damage to the vehicle. The cause of the loss of control is under assessment, however, there is speculation that radio interference may have played a role.

Are the rules enough?

According to Transport Canada’s database, the Peel Regional Police were called at least three times in relation to drones being sighted near Toronto’s two major airports. It’s generally “a rare and infrequent occurrence” for them to be called, according to Matt Small, spokesperson for the department. When they do receive a call, police meet the flight crew at the gate and gather information to make sure the incident is documented, and also conduct an area search for the culprit.

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“To date there have been no apprehensions,” said Small. Transport Canada and other police forces may also be involved in enforcing these rules.

Smith believes that the penalties for flying within nine kilometres of an airport should be strengthened, even for recreational drone users. “They’re just guidelines. And that’s a problem. How do you enforce a guideline?”

He also believes that drone pilots should be better-educated on their responsibilities.

“You can’t just have any Joe Blow buy something out there and then go operate this thing and expect him to know exactly what he’s doing if he hasn’t been trained in the full operation of these vehicles beforehand.”

Transport Canada is moving in the right direction, he said, but he would like to see faster progress on developing regulations. “This is very new. It’s one of those situations that’s just popped up on the radar in the last couple of years,” he said. He hopes that international standards on unmanned aircraft will continue to be developed.

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