Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette
More from Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette
Marc Garneau doesn’t scare easily. The federal Minister of Transport was the first Canadian astronaut to fly into space, spinning through the cosmos in 1984. He followed that up with two more shuttle missions in 1996 and 2000.
But what keeps the former president of the Canadian Space Agency up at night? Nightmares of heat-shield failures or re-entries into Earth’s atmosphere gone amok? Nope.
Would you believe something so much smaller than a rocket-ship but potentially more insidious?
Would you believe: drones?
More specifically, drones interfering with aircraft, from jumbo 747s to wee Cessnas and even seaplanes. There have already been numerous reports of near-collisions between drones and airplanes, and with unregulated recreational drones soaring in popularity, Garneau fears catastrophe could be around the corner.
“That’s the kind of nightmare scenario that keeps me up at night,” he says.
And if that’s Garneau’s nightmare, it should probably be ours, too.
Garneau, the member of Parliament for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount, points out that most people don’t think of birds as dangerous, yet there have been countless incidents of bird-strikes on planes that have disabled operating systems and have even resulted in passenger deaths.
“Birds are light and fragile, made of hollow bones and feathers,” Garneau says. “Drones are made of metal and contain lithium batteries.”
You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure out what could occur if a drone got sucked into the engine of a 747 high over a densely populated city.
In 2016, there were 148 drone/airplane incident reports — up from 85 in 2015 and 41 in 2014.
“I don’t know what the numbers are so far this year, but it’s also trending upwards, because there are more people with drones,” Garneau says. “These are reports where the pilot, typically, is coming in on final approach, or close to it, or taking off. And the pilot spots out of the side or front window what appears to be a drone. I’ve had reports of proximity, ranging from 50 feet to a couple of thousand feet.
“What this signifies to me is that there are people who have clearly no idea of the danger they are posing when they decide to fly their drone. I’m concerned about a case where a drone could go into an engine or smash a canopy window at a critical point in the flight.”
Garneau notes that his time spent with the NASA program has made him particularly safety-conscious, and that he seeks to take a pro-active approach to the issue — rather than wait for calamity to strike.
Under current regulations, operators of drones for commercial, academic or research purposes require a Special Flight Operating Certificate. Garneau concedes that most certificate holders have operated safely to date. His concern is the ever-growing number of recreational-drone operators who don’t need a certificate.
To that end, Garneau has introduced immediate measures, until new regulations, covering all unmanned aircraft (including model planes) and setting minimum age requirements, can be enacted. These measures include no flying of recreational drones: at night; higher than 90 metres; within 75 metres of buildings, vehicles or people; and within 9 kilometres of any airport, heliport, seaplane base or airstrip where aircraft take off or land. Plus, operators will be required to mark their drones with their contact information and to steer clear of controlled or restricted airspace, forest fires and first-responder sites.
Anyone caught breaking these rules is subject to fines of up to $3,000.
Until recently, some “dos and don’ts” covered recreational drone use, but these were largely guidelines with no penalties for ignoring them.
“We have strict interim orders for now, and shortly we’ll be coming up with some final regulations, because I just don’t want to hear about that awful catastrophe of someone not knowing about flying a drone close to an airplane,” Garneau says. “If the drone is big — and they are getting bigger all the time — they can cause a lot of damage.”
Regardless of the danger, Garneau realizes there is a “community of people” out there who don’t like these measures, complaining they make it impossible for them to enjoy recreational drone flying.
“Yes, there are people who know what they’re doing and who are responsible, and, no question, drones can do great things,” he says. “My concern is not them. It’s those who really don’t have the knowledge about what they’re doing in Canadian airspace.
“Pilots have to undergo a rigorous process to become qualified as pilots. But at the moment, it’s fairly easy for someone to buy a drone and put it up there. So with new regulations, we’d like to bring in some training and a requirement to demonstrate that one understands the safety aspect before getting permission to fly.”
Garneau can’t specify how many of the reported drone/airplane incidents have taken place near the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, but can say that it has had its share “because it’s one of the biggest airports in the country.”
“Really, it’s everywhere in the country — Toronto, Vancouver as well as Montreal,” Garneau adds. “I don’t ever want to be in the position if something were to happen, having people immediately say: ‘Why didn’t you do something?’”
AT A GLANCE
For tips on drone safety, go to canada.ca/drone-safety.