Mayoral candidate Gord Steeves would give drones to Winnipeg police as a way to back up their helicopter, which is frequently out of use.
The former St. Vital councillor said he'd like to buy two drones at a cost of about $35,000 each to help police investigate specific incidents. They would not be used for general surveillance except with a warrant, he said.
Steeves said RCMP are already using unmanned aerial vehicles to detect grow-ops. He said the same checks and balances in place for the police helicopter would also be used for the drones.
"It doesn't give the police any more liberty than they had previously," he said. "What this does is allow us, in a very cost-effective and efficient way, to backfill a safety need in our community."
The promise bolsters Steeves' tough-on-crime promise earlier this month to saturate high-priority areas with police and add more cadets downtown to deal with drunks and panhandlers.
Winnipeg would be the first city in Canada to use drones and would have to adhere to Transport Canada safety regulations, said Steeves.
The drones would only be deployed when the helicopter is out of commission, which happens often. In 2012, it didn't fly about a third of the year due to unscheduled maintenance, staffing shortages and weather. And, it can only fly for 2.5 hours a day.
Steeves says he's encountered little opposition to the police helicopter, but adding another would cost $4 million in capital costs. In June, mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette proposed replacing the police helicopter with a $100,000 drone and a trained operator, saying the helicopter's annual operating budget is an unnecessary expense.
What makes more sense for public safety: a police helicopter or drones? Join the conversation in the comments below.
What is a drone?
"Drone" is a catch-all term for what is generally referred to as an unmanned aerial vehicle. These can range from full-sized airplanes that are steered from a control room halfway around the world to the small quad copter flyers you can assemble in your living room.
The office of the privacy commissioner of Canada informally divides UAVs into five categories. Large fixed-wing aircraft are basically full-sized planes, like the Predator drone that can fly up to 25,000 feet high. Small fixed-wing aircraft are similar, but smaller than their large counterparts. Some can still fly upwards of 19,000 feet high and are popular with law enforcement in the United States.
Micro-UAVs are what candidate Gord Steeves is proposing for Winnipeg police. These are small portable craft that can be carried and operated by a single person. They're also popular with filmmakers, who use them to take aerial shots.
There are also biomimetic UAVs, which look like wildlife, such as a small bird or insect, and are used in scientific research.
Lastly, weather balloons and unmanned blimps also count as UAVs.
How are drones regulated in Canada?
The use of UAVs in Canada is currently regulated by two government agencies. The Department of National Defence regulates all military use, while Transport Canada governs all civilian use.
If somebody wants to use an UAV, they have to apply for a special flight operations certificate, or SFOC. SFOCs cover everything from parachuting to balloons and, of course, UAVs. When an operator wants to use a drone, they have to fill the SFOC out, specifying where and when they'll be flying, for what use, a detailed description of their drone and a detailed plan of how the operation will be carried out, among other things. The aim is to show an operator can safely and reliably use the UAV. Once the SFOC is issued, it will come with certain restrictions, usually the area in which the drone is allowed to fly, and the time frame of the operation. This applies to individuals as much as it does to police.
So every time police want to put a drone in the air they have to apply for one of these certificates?
Yes and no. Once an operator or organization has shown they're reliable with UAVs and have been routinely issued SFOCs, Transport Canada can choose to grant them a blanket or long-term SFOC. These can cover a period of time, usually about a year, or for a certain geographic area, if the operations each time are identical. So if, for example, Winnipeg police wanted to do a routine flyover of Portage Avenue every Tuesday at noon, a blanket SFOC could grant them the permission to do that, without having to apply for a new SFOC each time.
What kind of restrictions do the SFOC impose?
This is where it gets murky. Maryse Durette, a senior adviser with Transport Canada media relations, said the restrictions on an SFOC vary on a case-by-case basis. They usually take into account the area the drone would fly in, as well as the type of operation.
However, it's possible to get a rough idea of what restrictions police face by looking at other police across the country. Ontario Provincial Police use drones in some of their operations. In their case, the drones are not allowed to fly higher than 120 metres, must stay within sight of the operator and can't fly over people not involved with whatever incident the drone is used for. Durette said she hadn't heard of the last restriction before but the other two are common.
What about privacy concerns?
Transport Canada does not impose restrictions based on privacy concerns, Durette said, as that's the territory of the privacy commissioner of Canada. However, the commissioner can make recommendations that eventually get incorporated into Transport Canada's regulations.
The commissioner released a set of guidelines for drone use by police in 2006. The report outlines what steps police should take when using drones in their operations. For example, it recommends video surveillance equipment be subject to "independent audit and evaluation."