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Constable Daron Babor, Corporal Genevieve Dussault and Corporal Paul Vermeulen, members of the RCMP's Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service, demonstrate an unmanned aerial vehicle used by the RCMP for collision analysis. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Constable Daron Babor, Corporal Genevieve Dussault and Corporal Paul Vermeulen, members of the RCMP's Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service, demonstrate an unmanned aerial vehicle used by the RCMP for collision analysis. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

RCMP’s eyes in the sky spark civil liberties debate Add to ...

They weigh about the same as a bird and hover over accident scenes, a speck in the sky quietly filming a debris field for RCMP, sending officers close-ups of skid marks and anything else an operator deems relevant.

The camera-equipped drones, resembling a toy helicopter, are cheap to use, portable and compact to haul and efficient, taking off quickly and climbing up to 8,000 feet. They’ve become essential tools for officers in search-and-rescue missions in several provinces, from Ontario and the Northwest Territories to British Columbia, where officers in the Okanagan are hoping to get theirs soon.

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But like their larger, war-zone counterparts, the RCMP drones have prompted criticism and worry from civil liberties advocates who say the RCMP has been making to the skies without public consultation.

“Don’t refer to these as drones, because they’re not,” said Corporal Green from the Saskatoon RCMP. “We just don’t do surveillance. We’re not going down that road.”

Cpl. Green, a forensic collision reconstructionist, said the device provides an enhanced way of looking at things, and was likely responsible for saving a man’s life in May. A 25-year-old man had rolled his car off the road near Saskatoon and had wandered into a wooded field wearing a T-shirt in freezing weather.

“By the time the dog would have found the track and then been able to track him, it would have been too late,” said Cpl. Green in a telephone interview.

“We would have been into a body recovery.”

Instead, the RCMP launched a Draganflyer X4-ES, which located the man using infrared technology.

Constable Robert McDonald with Lower Mainland traffic services in the Vancouver area says the devices are deployed when lives are at risk.

“We could use [drones] … in serious conditions, for example if there was somebody who was barricaded and we needed a better aerial view of where the person would be,” he said.

As of 2010, the latest figures are available, the RCMP had 18 so-called UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles – spread across the country, including in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Ontario.

The RCMP E Division in B.C. owns four UAVs that are located in the Lower Mainland, the Southeast, the Island and the North.

But Michael McEvoy, assistant commissioner at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., said the RCMP’s use of drones raises serious concerns.

The privacy commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over the RCMP in British Columbia, but Mr. McEvoy said his office was approached by provincial RCMP, who explained how UAVs were going to be used.

“[The RCMP] has to ensure that they’re not unnecessarily collecting information, and frankly surveilling people,” Mr. McEvoy said.

Mr. McEvoy’s biggest concern is “scope creep,” which means the possibility that drones could be used for something other than what they were initially planned for.

Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said so far, the public has been left out of the debate.

“There’s no doubt drones have a bad name. There’s a kind of instinctual suspicion,” said Ms. Vonn. “The more the cover of stealth and secrecy is on this the more the public is going to add to its already not-very-rosy attitude towards these technologies.”

UAVs are governed by Transport Canada, and require licences called Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOCs), which limit how high UAVs can fly and where they can go. The licence also requires the device to be in full view of the person operating it, although users can request special permission to operate UAVs outside of these parameters.

The devices can cost anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars.

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