[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.
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…?).
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.
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.
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.