The dry language of a federal aviation database can’t conceal the drama of the incidents they describe.
In October of 2014, the pilot of a floatplane on its way to Squamish, B.C. from Vancouver encountered a drone at 1,400 feet, ‘barely missing his wing.’
Months later, another drone whizzed 10 feet from a startled pilot as he tried to land in Vancouver.
Two weeks later, a drone flying over a forest fire in the B.C. interior forced the grounding of 13 aircraft helping fight the fire, which spread for four hours until they could fly again.
In 2014 Toronto’s Pearson airport had to close a runway, and in 2015 the Vancouver control tower had to stop two aircraft taking off, because of drones. There are several reports in Transport Canada’s incident reports of pilots changing course to avoid drones.
Drones are increasingly causing problems for traditional aviation – a fact that could pose real dangers for pilots and passengers.
In 2015, there were 77 complaints, mostly from pilots, to Transport Canada about the gadgets. (In 2014, there were only 28.) Four of them describe truly close calls, where drones barely missed aircraft.
Air traffic controllers asked local police for help with the problem 31 times in 2015. But across the country, only five drone operators were fined.
The federal government promises new regulations – like requiring training and registration for drone operators, or specific markings of the drones themselves. But it’s hard to see how this problem can be regulated away.
If you can’t find a drone’s operator, how can you penalize them? If drones were never registered, how do you enforce registration after the fact?
The danger of drones
“If there’s a collision with an aircraft, it can cause substantial damage to the aircraft,” warns Ed Benoza of the Air Canada Pilots Association.
The worst-case scenario involves a drone being sucked into a jet engine.
“When parts start flying, they fly everywhere,” he explains.
Registration seems to be coming, but nobody, including the federal government, knows how many drones are actually out there.
“Right now we don’t keep track of how many drones are sold in Canada, or are used,” Transport Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier says. “We don’t really have any way to track that.”
“It’s estimated that there were about 300,000 sold at Christmas last year,” says drone flying instructor Sterling Cripps. “They end up under the Christmas tree, then on Christmas Day there are 300,000 drones in the air.”
(About 431,000 drone owners have registered with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration since late December, after the FAA started requiring owners to register themselves and mark their drones, but it’s impossible to know what the compliance rate is.)
The difficulty with tracking drones
With so many drones in the air, it can be difficult to identify one that’s gone rogue.
Startled pilots do their best to describe a problem drone, but the results are sketchy at best. To this day, all we know about the drone that interrupted the B.C. firefighting, for example, is that it was “fluorescent orange coloured from above.”
Fire crews across British Columbia are having a tough summer, battling extreme temperatures, gusting winds and drought conditions. And now they’re dealing with another threat: drones.
In 53 cases since early 2014 where airports asked local police for help finding a rogue drone operator, there’s no evidence in the data that they ever succeeded.
“In a lot of these cases, by the time an investigator [is] sent, Transport Canada or local law enforcement, the person’s not on the scene any more,” Gauthier says. “It’s very hard to track down.”
On the surface, they look like the latest high- tech toy – but Vancouver airport officials are worried that they could cause a tragedy.
Well-meaning drone pilots?
In most cases, rogue drone operators may not have set out to cause problems.
“We believe that most drone users aren’t out to do malicious things,” Gauthier says. “It’s a lack, usually, of familiarity or knowledge with the rules.”
“It’s usually young adolescent males that are flying these things,” Cripps says. “I see about five per cent women in my training courses, and I’m up to about 1,300, 1,400 students now… The demographics are young men who go to Best Buy and just buy their equipment and go flying.”
The Dutch National Police Force has an answer to the growing problem of unwanted drone traffic: specially-trained, drone-hunting attack eagles.
Solving the issue
One strategy for dealing with problem drones at airports involves electronics rather than rules – blocking drones’ radio controller frequencies in areas where they’re not wanted, or programming them to be unusable near airports. The technique is called “geofencing.”
DJI, a higher-end drone maker, has installed software making it impossible to fly their drones within a certain radius of a North American airport. After a wayward drone alarmed the U.S. Secret Service by landing on the White House lawn in 2015, the company added much of Washington, D.C. to the geofence.
Other technologies override the operator and take control of the drone.
“There are people who are legitimately allowed to operate their drone closer than nine kilometres from an airport,” Gauthier points out.
For Cripps, however, the solution lies in education.
“You don’t want to start jamming frequencies around an airport. The best thing is vigilance and socialization,” he says.
“People who buy these things have to be responsible. They have to understand that there are rules and regulations, and they have to know where they can or cannot fly.”
Benoza, on the other hand, would like to see a technological fix: “I think geofencing would be a sophisticated way of dealing with it.”
“Something bad has to happen before we act on this stuff, and take it seriously. It is a serious threat. Once one of these things falls out of the sky and hits somebody in a schoolyard, we’re really going to get serious about these things.”