Don’t worry — drones aren’t built for spying

Despite what you may have heard, drones are too noisy, too tricky to manoeuvre, and too low resolution for spying

Markus Weber was out in the countryside taking aerial shots of some wind turbines when a gun-toting farmer drove up and accused him of spying with his drone.

“It had occurred to me before the people might have privacy concerns, but that really drove home how little understanding there is of the capabilities of these drones,” said Weber, owner of LandView Drones.

“He genuinely thought that we might be spying on him when really the best we could have done — even if we had turned the drones toward his house — was got some general pictures of his house like you would from a manned aircraft flying over.

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“We certainly couldn’t look at the inside of his house or individual people there. But unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people think when they haven’t been exposed to drones before.”

It’s one of the most common misconceptions people have about drones, said Weber, who points to how the media portrays drones as a major reason. Despite what you may have read on the internet or heard down at the coffee shop, the average drone just isn’t built for spying.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Weber. “If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to fly a drone — how manoeuvrable they are, what types of optics they have — all you see is that something up in the sky seems to be looking right at you.”

With the possible exception of “very high-end equipment” that isn’t available to most consumers, the drones on the market today (and their cameras) don’t have the ability to zoom — a necessary function for spying.

“It’s essentially like having an iPhone that’s several hundred feet up in the air and several hundred feet offset,” said Weber. “You simply don’t get enough resolution to really be able to do much spying with that type of aircraft.”

Drones also make a lot of noise — another strike against using them for something as stealthy as spying.

“You can hear a drone as soon as it’s within 300 or 400 feet of you. If it were a larger one that has zoom capabilities, you would hear it from a half-mile away.”

Strike three is government’s lengthy list of regulations on where drones can fly. As unmanned aerial vehicles, drones can be restricted from flying based not only on the type of airspace they’re in but also on offsets from roadways and buildings.

Drone users need to be at least 150 feet away from a roadway and are prohibited from flying over buildings — to say nothing of the privacy laws that also make spying of any type illegal. And failure to comply can bring fines (up to $25,000) or even jail time.

However, that may not comfort farmers worried about their privacy or possessions, Weber acknowledged.

“The risk of theft in the countryside has people worried, and I can understand that fear,” he said.

He’s heard anecdotal stories of drones being used by thieves to scout farmyards but doesn’t know of any actual cases in Canada where a rural crime was committed using a drone.

Even so, farmers do have some recourse if they’re worried about drones near their land.

Your first instinct might be to grab your gun and do a little target practice, but that’s a big no-no.

Transport Canada considers drones to be aircraft, and it’s illegal to try and shoot them down.

If you suspect a drone is being flown illegally, Transport Canada has an online drone incident report form, and in some areas, the RCMP will also respond to complaints about drone usage. But first, you need to make sure the drone is, in fact, being flown illegally. If the drone is endangering people, animals, or property, that fits the bill. But if it’s simply flying overhead, it’s probably perfectly legal.

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult for people to understand what is and is not illegal,” said Weber.

“We can legally overfly people’s land if we’re not invading their privacy.”

In the end, Weber was able to defuse the confrontation with the suspicious farmer by showing him the drone footage. But the situation might have been avoided entirely if Weber had simply knocked on the farmer’s door.

“One of the main lessons we learned was that it makes sense to provide notice to people. Even if the law doesn’t require notice, we give it,” he said.

Now, Weber encourages farmers and other students of his drone school to give a heads-up to anyone who might be affected by a drone flight whenever possible.

“If you’re a farmer who’s going to be using a drone routinely for crop mapping, it makes sense to let those neighbours who are going to be affected know,” he said.

“Information is everything. Talking to people and letting them know what you’re up to really eases any tension.”

“One of the main lessons we learned was that it makes sense to provide notice to people,” Markus Weber says.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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