Keep an Eye on the Sky

[Note: The following was first published in the December 2013 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2013 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We’ve all heard about them in the U.S. military, where they hunt militants, terrorists and other targets from the air, all without risking the lives of pilots. They are drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that fly without a human pilot onboard. Instead, the plane is flown by an onboard automated system or remotely by a pilot on the ground. This would have been the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago, but today it is reality. Satellites, the Internet and the miniaturization of electronics have turned fiction into fact.

Now, unmanned aircraft are nothing new to model airplane hobbyists. Radio-controlled model aircraft have been around for decades. The miniaturization of electronics and batteries have allowed modern model builders to add many features, including GPS and video cameras. This allows the pilot to fly the aircraft beyond his direct view, using a hand-held device that provides a view from the cockpit.

Drone detection device

A drone detection device on a fencepost with a solar power supply.

The military and hobbyists are not the only ones interested in flying UAVs. Governments, corporations and private individuals are using them to view remote areas, to study crops, wildlife, or in firefighting and rescue missions. Such craft can also be used surreptitiously to watch people, whether committing crimes or just doing their daily business. This, of course, raises privacy concerns among the public.

Indeed, the little town of Deer Trail, Colorado, is slated to hold a referendum in December (since this printing, postponed until April 2014) that if passed would allow its residents to purchase a $25 licence to shoot down any unmanned aircraft flying lower than a 1000 feet above the ground within town limits. As well, the ordinance would pay a $100 bounty for each fuselage or tail section of such drone presented to the town. Deer Trail is not alone. Other communities and states are considering similar legislation.

These actions prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue a statement reminding people that using guns to shoot down drones could endanger the public and property, and could result in prosecution. It should be noted that the U.S. Congress has instructed the FAA to develop regulations to safely integrate the use of drones into the skies over the U.S. by 2015. The FAA estimates that once these regulations are in place, thousands of drones will be used across the U.S. for the purposes outlined above.

Enter PETA (People for the Ethical Treat of Animals), the animal-rights organization that regularly illustrates how out of touch with reality people can become when they let their emotions overrun common sense and reasoning. Not content to wait for the delayed FAA regulations, PETA announced it is selling “hobby” drones to anyone who wishes to watch hunters in the field, record any illegal activities on video and report the violations. “PETA’s drones will help protect wildlife by letting hunters know that someone may be watching—and recording—them, so they should think twice before illegally killing or maiming any living thing,” said PETA president, Ingrid Newkirk in the news release. The Air Angels Drone sells on the PETA website for $325 US.

The announcement went viral on the Internet. Comments on various sites ranged from enthusiastic approval to concerns about privacy, to hunters blustering they would shoot the drones out of the sky (not the safest or easiest thing to do with a high-powered rifle, but a shotgun…?).

Detection
Technology knows no favorites. Not a week after the PETA announcement, a start-up technology company, DroneShield announced it had created a drone detection system that can be used by outdoors people. Drones emit distinctive acoustic signatures that can be distinguished from those of lawn mowers or large aircraft for example. The DroneShield device can detect and report those signatures. It can be placed on a building or fence post and either plugged into an electric outlet or a battery pack. When its microphone detects drone sounds, the device flashes a light and sends an e-mail or text message to its owner providing details about what was detected. The device scans only for hobby-class drones, such as offered by PETA, and not for drones currently used by law enforcement agencies. The system is passive and does not interfere with the drone in any way. The software in the device can be easily updated to include any new audio signatures that may come from hobby and commercial drones in the future. The DroneShield device currently sells for $99 US.

Hunter DroneShield

A “Hunter’ DroneShield device at a tree stand.

Brian Hearing, co-founder of DroneShield, told me via e-mail that they recently developed a hunter version of their device ($59 + battery) that clips to a hunter’s belt or tree stand. “If a drone comes near it will flash an LED light,” wrote Hearing. “The downside is it won’t provide much advanced warning.” However, if a hunting area is accessed from a single parking area or trailhead, the device could be concealed there, and when it detects a drone launch, send a message via radio (not included) to the hunter in the field.

DroneShield’s original device has been used in residential, industrial and commercial applications, including some hunting lodges experiencing harassment from animal rights groups. In one case in Pennsylvania, a drone (not PETA’s) was actually shot down on lodge property.

Legality
The legality of drone use is a grey area. In the U.S., commercial (for profit) use is banned at least until the FAA produces its regulations in 2015. However, hobby use is not prohibited and PETA’s use is most likely legal for the time being.

In Canada, commercial use is allowed provided a flight plan is filed with Transport Canada each time the drone is flown (so the drone will not conflict with other aircraft). However, hobby use is unrestricted, provided the craft is less than 35 kg in weight, is not owned by a company and is not being used to make a profit. Drone detection systems have no restrictions in either country, provided such systems are passive (do not interfere with the drone).

Where things get dicey is what you might do with the information you receive from a detection system. If you shoot a drone down or otherwise cause it to crash (for example, using a radio jamming system that somebody somewhere will inevitably develop for the purpose), are you liable for the cost of the aircraft? One of your legal defences would be the drone was invading your privacy. But privacy laws/regulations in this country, especially concerning the outdoors, are sketchy at best. Hunters have a right to be in the woods and field provided they have permission of the landowner (where applicable); but does a drone operator have the right to fly aircraft over hunters to record their actions? In Alberta, the Wildlife Act protects hunters from harassment. Are such actions harassment? Someone will likely have to go to court to find out.

Animal rights groups, like PETA, have not caused as much trouble here in Alberta and Canada as they have in the U.S. We also have extensive hunting areas where it would be difficult for a drone operator to find hunters. However, what happens in the U.S. eventually happens here, and like in the States, outfitters and lodges might be the first targets. We all should be aware.

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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One Response to Keep an Eye on the Sky

  1. Shanon says:

    I don’t agree with trophy hunters nor do I agree with outfitters taking advantage of leased land by buying 5+ cows and using that rented land for a outfitting business and setting up hundreds of game cameras when they don’t own it and make money off of wild game and spend the off season baiting an area with nutrients such as Deer Cane to bring in the numbers for the upcoming season. Trophy hunters and Outfitters have one thing in common GREED and thats not illegal.

    Now that I’ve said all of that:
    I look at drones no differently than quads most hunters use quads and cover a lot of miles going down pipeline cut lines that are conjoined with hundreds of other pipeline cut lines, glassing with binoculars at the tee intersection of the pipeline as far as the eye can see on both sides for miles before riding on through to the next intersection of the cut line. Having quads is an unfair advantage I walk when I hunt for miles but is having a drone more of an unfair advantage than a quad when on foot? I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why I think drones can be useful for hunting but before I do I should explain a little about one the highest range without a license that you can get is 5KM the battery life before recharging is 25mins the height 350feet max for most drones camera and video optional. Now that said I will explain the benefits of it for hunting

    – If you spot a bear with one you may think twice about going into that area to hunt so you as a hunter could avoid a conflict before one ever takes place. We all know if an encounter takes place the bear always loses by being put down.

    -Spot illegal poaching with people chasing with trucks and quads and other illegal activity that maybe taking place in the area.

    – It may save a persons life if your drone spots someone badly hurt or lost.

    – Help by reporting numbers to fish and game in the WMU with quarter section numbers as well by providing pictures if your drone has that capability after all theres not enough employees in an area to keep track of that and maybe have a contest and enter people names in it that provide pics and video from their drones with information.

    These all are important points but that being said there also needs to be some laws in place such as if you use an ATV your not aloud to use a drone only if your walking you should be aloud after all even though you may spot something you do have along trek ahead of you but it does let you know if theres something in the area and you know that all of your efforts are not for nothing no differently than a ATV’s advantage but not everyone could afford one of those so why should it be aloud for the ones that can to use them. I have come close but when I hear a ATV roaring scaring game with loud motors away from me it makes me mad and all of my efforts are lost I pay the same as everyone else with tags and should have an equal chance at something instead of starting back to square one and ATVS chase stuff further in than most people are capable of walking. ATVS & DRONES have one thing in common an EDGE no different than baiting in the off season a couple weeks before hunting with DEER CANE or other nutrients that OUTFITTERS USE along with videos and cameras.

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