Drone image via Wikimedia Commons.
Here’s a fun fact: Vancouver reports more UFO sightings than any other city in Canada. (Go on, Toronto: get judge-y.) According to a recent Canadian UFO survey, there’s been a steady increase in sightings all over the country, with big leaps in 2008 and 2012.
Perhaps most embarrassingly, Vancouverites tweeted a “close encounter” at a minor league baseball game last fall, which turned out to be a promotional drone hyping a planetarium. Still, It begs the question: how many UFOs these days are just drones?
Seeing a drone in the city is a jarring, inexplicable experience. I’ll admit I watched one cruise past my eighth floor office window in downtown Vancouver, with confusing and anxious results. They weren't military or police drones (which operate in Canada and the US), either. They were drones procured by private citizens. Unlike America, which bans the use of commercial drones, Canada has been handing out unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) permits to all kinds of businesses since 2007.
Wildlife scientists, filmmakers, real estate marketers, agri-businesses, college instructors and resource extraction companies have all legally put drones into Canadian airspace. For better or for worse, the numbers are expected to climb dramatically over the next few years as the technology becomes more accessible.
“The use of them is exploding across professions and among the public,” says Ethan Baron, journalism instructor at Langara College in Vancouver. Last month, Baron launched a training program that teaches a dozen students to pilot camera-mounted drones during breaking news events. Every Monday (weather permitting), Baron and his students venture out to a nearby park and practice navigating a UAV in groups of four.
High-end real estate promo is another unexpected drone market in Canada’s least affordable city. “I’ve been obsessed with quadcopters for awhile,” says Russ Macnab, who makes glossy MTV Cribs-style videos using a Phantom DJI drone.
Macnab says he didn’t get a drone until January because he noted most UAV footage turns out jittery and low quality. The Phantom—which includes a stabilizing “gimbal” mount for a GoPro camera—takes smoother, slicker shots. “As soon as I saw a preview video, I had to get one,” he says.
Finding a drone isn’t difficult or prohibitively expensive. While most in-person electronics stores only stock the dinkiest toy models, you can order a professional-grade UAV online or through drone dealers. Macnab says he bought his through an Abbotsford dealer for $500. He’s since invested about $3,500 in parts and add-ons. “A few years ago a set-up like this might cost $50,000,” says Macnab, “the technology’s changed so quickly.”
Sure, there are rules and paperwork, but the application process seems straightforward and speedy once you get the hang of it. “You need to get permission from Transport Canada every time you want to fly it,” Macnab explains. Commercial drone users have to submit a detailed flight plan and make painstaking efforts to reduce risks of damage or injury. That means flying far away from people and property.
Langara’s drone reporting program—the first of its kind in Canada—was only conceived a few months ago. “We started making plans during the fall semester, and then first started working with Transport Canada in January,” Baron recalls. Unlike the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has shut down baseball photographers and beer delivery services and levelled $10,000 fines, Transport Canada is thus far taking a low-bureaucracy approach.
Of course, when a protest or natural disaster does occur, Langara students will still need to wait for approval from Transport Canada to deploy the drone. Baron says he’s waiting to hear back about a request for “blanket permission”—a designation given to RCMP drones for months or even a year at a time.
“We want to be able to fly it at a moment’s notice,” he says. “The law right now, or at least the policies around the law don’t allow for any kind of spur-of-the-moment use.” Baron expects to hear back from Transport Canada in a couple weeks.
Because news happens spur-of-the-moment, some drone users don’t play by the rules. Baron says he knows of at least one Vancouver news organization that is using a drone to capture footage without legal permits.
The drone I saw last summer was definitely breaking a few rules—flying over traffic and near building windows. Because I don’t trust my own memory, I interviewed a friend and colleague who spotted the drone seconds before I did.
I asked Nichole Jankowski what she remembers. “I sit in a desk that faces south down Hamilton Street, overlooking Victory Square Park,” she says. "It was a weekday evening; the sun was going down.”
“I was looking out the window and saw movement,” she explains. “Whatever it was flew by and changed direction. It wasn’t the same pace as a pigeon or bird that you might see… I feel like it flew over the building across the street—you can see over the rooftop—and I remember it exiting going west, down Hastings.” It was a dark, metallic grey, we guessed about two feet in diameter.
For Nichole and I, the experience raised privacy anxieties almost immediately. Neither of us were keen on some stranger anonymously ogling our office’s computer and camera equipment.
Baron readily acknowledges this tension. “There are tons of legitimate uses, and there is a huge amount of potential to operate unsafely, or to look into places [drones] ought not to look,” he says. “People concerned about civil liberties in Canada and the United States have reasonable concerns that agencies could be using drones to violate people’s rights, and commit acts of unlawful intrusion.”
Having worked under surveillance drones with Canadian Forces in Afghanistan as a journalist, Baron has also felt protected by drones. “For me, the drones were used in support of soldiers who I was with, so the sound of a drone up high in the sky was usually a little bit reassuring,” he recalls. “For local people in Western Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan, I would think that sound would be much more unnerving.”
While the commercial drone businesses may have a head start north of the border, Canada may not have a lead for long. The FAA plans to introduce wide-ranging drone regulations sometime next year, which will allow commercial eyes in the skies. A US federal court already ruled against FAA fines on commercial drone photography, which the FAA has since appealed.
When asked about rising UFO sightings, Baron says, “It wasn’t me!” with a laugh. Let this be a lesson to Vancouver eccentrics: you probably saw a drone.