The RCMP is planning to expand their fleet of remote-controlled “eyes in the sky,” and for the first time, they’re looking south of the border to a company that has been a major supplier of unmanned aerial vehicles for the U.S. military.
Southern California-based AeroVironment Inc. builds tiny fixed-wing drones, which have been a staple of the U.S. Defence Department’s arsenal in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it also produces a line of four-rotor helicopters - called Qubes - that are tailor-made for use by police. Small enough to fit in the trunk of a car and controlled using touch-screen tablets, these toylike machines are equipped with live-stream video cameras and thermal-imaging technology to give police a bird’s-eye view of an accident scene and aid in search-and-rescue operations.
RCMP’s F Division in Saskatchewan, which has taken a lead role testing unmanned aircraft for the force, just posted on a government-contracting website notice of its intent to acquire as many as three Qubes and related accessories for about $270,000. “It’s starting to catch on more and more. Eventually, I think you’ll see (unmanned aerial vehicles) in almost all the provinces,” said RCMP Staff Sgt. Dave Domoney in Regina.
The force has at its disposal 18 less-expensive, Canadian-made models in several divisions - nine in Saskatchewan, four in Alberta, two in Manitoba, one each in B.C. and the Northwest Territories, and one in Ottawa. Some municipal police agencies and the Ontario Provincial Police also have them.
Domoney said the RCMP took interest in the costlier Qube because it can stay up in the air for 40 minutes, longer than others. The force is still saving money, he said, because it can cost thousands of dollars per hour to deploy a helicopter.
Low-altitude drones offer many benefits, police say they can: assist in collision reconstruction by helping investigators see skid marks that they may have overlooked; identify potential threats to tactical officers responding to an incident; and help locate missing people over difficult terrain.
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner, published a report last August that said while unmanned aerial vehicles offered many benefits, they could become “extremely invasive.”
"There are unique privacy challenges posed, due to UAVs’ potential for constant surveillance from vantage points that are difficult to discern," she wrote. "Special use restrictions and regulatory measures will likely be necessary, going forward."