Privacy, safety questions raised about hobby drones
The number of ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ hobbyists are rising as prices for the devices fall. Amateur drone enthusiast and theoretical physicist Noel Rubin posts his Downtown aerial photos to Instagram (@teknoelogy). (PHOTO NOEL RUBIN)
As he left his home Wednesday night for a walk in Charleson Park, Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs was puzzled by an “intrusive” buzzing noise.
Following the hum, he discovered a 30-something man flying a small helicopter with an iPad-like console. It had a camera attached and green-and-red lights.
“Some people were wondering if it was a UFO,” Meggs said. “It was noisy too. I was very surprised and interested to see this technology now in the hands of hobbyists.”
The device was a drone, or “unmanned aerial vehicle,” and as prices drop, more amateur enthusiasts are using them.
Noel Rubin, 44, has been piloting drones for roughly five years. His theoretical physics degree inspired him to heavily re-engineer a nearly metre-wide UAV, setting him back $3,000. Cheaper ones cost $1,000.
“The drone stuff's an exciting hobby,” he said. “I'm into the engineering part of this, but while I'm improving my machine, I put a camera on it just for the hell of it and they're great scenic pictures.”
Although Rubin said he wasn't flying Wednesday, or any night for safety reasons, his panoramic aerial shots over False Creek and his own backyard have garnered attention on Instagram. But some are concerned that increasing drone users could invade people’s privacy.
“I haven't formulated an opinion, but I was unsettled by it,” Meggs said. “I know you're in a public place so people can take pictures, but I think the ability of a drone to move around ... and digital technology can take this stuff in very unexpected directions.”
For Rubin, privacy is less a concern than safety — and after an incident with another hobbyist's drone flying close to a landing airplane appeared on YouTube in April, Transport Canada told 24 hours it has still not found the operator and is “very concerned.” Laws require commercial UAV operators to have a Special Flight Operations Certificate, but hobbyists are simply obliged to operate their drones safely, respect privacy, and not endanger other aircraft, people or property.
Rubin said the activity is actually “more complicated than driving a car” because the UAV is moving in three dimensions, often through a small camera console.
“Last week I saw someone hit a pole, but I've had over 50 flights with this machine and it's never crashed,” he said. “The bigger ones carrying cameras are not for kids.”