Drones: Simply a Toy or Significant Risk to National Security?

By Jessica Marano, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also referred to as drones, are used by Government agencies, private sector entities, and recreational enthusiasts for a variety of purposes. The proliferation of drone technology has reshaped the national security landscape ethically, economically, militarily, politically, and scientifically. UAVs are capable of threatening Canada’s national security interests, both domestically and internationally, in addition to violating Canadian’s right to privacy.

Transport Canada is responsible for establishing, managing, and developing security policies and regulations. Currently, there is no legislation governing the use of drones. In May 2015, Transport Canada published a Notice of Proposed Amendments that highlighted the proposed changes, including new flight rules, aircraft marking and registration requirements, knowledge testing, minimum age limits, and pilot permits for certain UAVs. Currently, the procedures surrounding the use of drones varies on whether the drone is used for “recreational” or “commercial” purposes. Operators must obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) if the UAV weighs more than 35 kilograms, is considered a commercial drone, or is used for work or research. This certificate allows Transport Canada to check if the operators can use their UAV reliably and safely.

Recreational operators must ensure they fly during daylight and in good weather; the drone remains in eyesight; and that operators respect the privacy of others. Operators must ensure they don’t fly closer than 150 meters from people, buildings, or structures and within restricted and controlled airspace, including near or over military bases, prisons, and forest fires. Furthermore, operators must follow the rules outlined in the Canadian Aviation Regulations, specifically section 602.41. If an operator does not follow the specified procedures, operators could face serious fines, including up to $3000 for a person or up to $25, 000 for a corporation, and/or jail time.


Critical Infrastructure

UAVs can be easily transported and launched from any public location, arriving within minutes to their target destination. They have the ability to fly over fences and walls and can escape detection by traditional radar systems. For example, a radar system designed to detect flying objects failed to detect a small drone that crashed into a tree on the lawn of the White House. Secret Service officers heard and observed the drone, but were unable to bring it down before it struck a tree. The drone was too small and flying too low to be detected by radar.


Moreover, drones put the safety of planes and travellers in danger. In May, two CF-18 fighter jets scrambled to intercept a drone seen flying at the Ottawa airport by pilots on two descending passenger planes. Additionally, in Winnipeg, a passenger plane came within 25 meters of a drone during its descent into the airport. Consequently, if a drone were to hit an airplane, it could damage the aircraft’s structure or be “ingested” into the plane’s engine. Furthermore, drones could hit the planes widescreen and disrupt the pilot’s view.


Terrorist organizations and insurgents have also benefited from the ever-growing presence of UAVs. Drones provide terrorist groups with easy access to targets and government buildings that traditional suicide bombers would have difficulty accessing. For example, terrorists can use modified drones to carry large amounts of explosives or poisonous gas to launch an attack against a crowd at a sporting event. The Islamic State has used aerial drones for reconnaissance and battlefield intelligence in Iraq and Syria and has attempted to use aerial and ground drones with explosive payloads to attack army troops.


Drone technology has been scrutinized for its potential privacy invasion. UAVs could fundamentally alter the way ostensibly free societies are policed. Further, because UAVs are not fixed in a specific location or vantage point, it becomes incredibly difficult for the public to know who the operators are. Moreover, individuals operating drones for recreational purposes can infringe on one’s privacy rights. For example, in 2015, a Kentucky man used a shotgun to blast a drone out of the air above his home, while a women in Seattle called the police when she feared a drone was peering into her apartment.

In order to control and reduce the threat to national and global security, it is recommended that the global community implement control measures that could help reduce, although not eliminate, the possibility that drones will fall into the wrong hands. National security advancements are required to counter the ever-growing nature of technological advances that pose a risk to the public and State. Any changes to the laws surrounding the use of drones must balance and address the specific risks relating to privacy, individual freedoms, and safety, without being unduly restrictive. If regulations are poorly written, restrictive laws could be struck down in courts, thus the challenge is to find the right balance between the right to the skies and the need for security and privacy.

A Different Point of View” by Jamie McCaffrey is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Categories: Drones

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