Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada grounded on drones

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When international Internet commerce giant announced it envisioned the day when robotic aircraft, or drones, would deliver parcels to people's doors, it set off a whirlwind of speculation about the seemingly limitless potential of the technology.

Eventually people would arrive at work by unmanned aerial vehicles, ambulance drones would rescue victims in remote regions, inter-office mail would arrive by mini-drones no bigger than an insect, crop surveillance, weather forecasting and crop dusting would be more precise, and so on.

Amazon's proposal is still in the realm of science fiction, but many potential uses are not, which is why a new race has begun to develop and expand the technology.

Canada, too, is exploring the possibilities, but its response has been tardy compared with other nations.

Typically, one of the more detailed studies of drones in Canada has been conducted by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which earlier this year published a lengthy tome on the privacy implications of the new technology.

The report said drones can carry technology that can literally see through walls and earth "enabling the tracking of individuals even inside buildings." Their zoom lenses "increase the chances" of surveillance from great distances, while "video analytics" would be able to monitor people and events and "identify particular movement patterns as suspicious."

Facial-recognition technology and "soft biometric recognition" would enable drones to recognize and track people based only on their height, age, gender and skin colour.

And that's just the beginning, the report says, explaining why the privacy issues need to be worked out before the technology is deployed.

Yes, the privacy questions will need to be answered, but first we need to develop the technology and understand what's possible on a commercial basis.

In the United States, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration is developing operational guidelines for drones that could be ready within one year.

The FAA said 7,500 commercial drones could be airborne within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace.

Further to that goal, the agency has authorized six states to develop test sites for drones, including North Dakota, but also densely populated New York.

The U.S. is looking for information on how to safely introduce the technology, primarily for government, business and agricultural applications. The American military, of course, is already well-advanced in the development of drones for various purposes.

Many American universities have expanded their drone research programs, while North Dakota has donated $5 million for its own test site.

Other countries are also moving at light speed to develop the technology and acquire the high-tech jobs that go with it,

Canada, however, is acting like a timid woodland creature, fearful of venturing into controversial terrain.

Some Canadian universities are developing the technology, including a research lab in Kitchener, Ont., that has built a surveillance drone that could be used by police or anyone with the need for a spy in the sky.

If that sounds conspiratorial, consider that toy stores already sell remotely powered helicopters that carry cameras. That's right, the kid next door could be watching you right now.

The Canadian military has limited drone capability -- it leased a small surveillance vehicle in Afghanistan -- but it should be expanding at a faster rate. Long-distance drones, for example, are the right tool for Arctic patrol and surveillance, and much cheaper than fully manned traditional aircraft.

Like it or not, the race for pilot-less aircraft has begun in earnest. If Canada doesn't hurry, it will get left behind and on the ground.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2014 $sourceSection0

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