Drones at the cottage: an ambiguous issue

drone-photographing-lake-in-the-summer Photo by Alex Yuzhakov/Shutterstock

Updated July 25, 2018

Pat Caine and a friend were out berry picking by her cottage on Malachi Lake, near the Ontario Manitoba border. As they walked on, they decided to cut into the bush and take a route they’d never followed before. After a few minutes, they emerged into a remote, rocky clearing, where they spotted something odd: a small red-and-white device, with two feet and a tiny camera, lying on a rock. “It was a little drone,” Caine recounts. “We had no idea how it got there.”

They picked up the gadget, took it back to the cottage, and began asking around to see if they could locate an owner. It didn’t take them long to track down a local man who’d been using the drone to take images of a pair of eagles’ nests, one at either end of the lake. But as the drone flew over the wilderness back from the shoreline, the device passed through a hydro corridor and apparently lost the GPS signal that allows it to navigate. While drones can take remarkable images from vantage points that most people will never reach, it’s questionable whether these agile airborne devices should be doing surveillance on something as sensitive as an eagle’s nest.

Indeed, flying a drone within 150 metres of animals is frowned upon by Transport Canada, observes Sterling Cripps, the president and chief instructor of Canadian Unmanned, a national training and support company for the drone industry, in Medicine Hat, Alta. “Those rules are out there,” he says. “People have to be aware that there’s a right way and a wrong way.”

While you may still think about high-altitude stealth bombers when you hear the word “drone,” there are hundreds of smaller and cheaper civilian and commercial drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), all of which rely on GPS navigation, sophisticated stabilizers, and digital control panels. In recent years, the prices have plunged as hobbyist drones equipped with digital cameras have found a foothold in the consumer electronics market. Big-box electronics chains and specialty retailers now offer a range of plug-and-play drones equipped with digital cameras that sell for $140 to $1,700.

As the booming sales suggest, current and potential applications seem to be limitless—from using drones to create visually captivating aerial photographs and videos to racing, real estate marketing, and even inspections of spaces that are difficult to access. For example, the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, a stewardship group in Alberta, used a UAV to conduct inspections of the shoreline of Wabamun Lake for use in a proposed lake plan.

But like all technologies, drones can be misused and flown in ways that raise concerns about safety and privacy. Cripps points out that YouTube is now awash with videos of drones harassing all sorts of animals, even whales.

Indeed, in 2013, Canada’s privacy commissioner highlighted the distribution of streaming video from drones to social media channels as a potential misuse of the technology. Transport Canada has released new rules governing the personal and commercial operation of UAVs, and the revised regulations are expected to include language about privacy.

According to both users and law enforcement officials, drones spying on neighbours, although not unprecedented, has not proven to be a significant concern—or, at least, not yet. Peter Leon, a sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police, says that cottage-country detachments in the province haven’t received calls from cottagers about hovering unknown drones that appear to be filming surreptitiously. “We have not had any complaints with respect to the technology,” he says. “Most people using them are very respectful.”

Commercially available drones, in fact, aren’t especially adroit at stealth surveillance (or quietly observing wildlife habitats, for that matter). Many have fish-eye, GoPro-style digital cameras, which lose resolution beyond a distance of a few metres. And, as the freelance filmmaker Rob Massie of Toronto notes, they’re not that quiet. “They’re a bit like a swarm of bees. You can’t get within a hundred feet of someone without them really noticing.”

But Cripps, for his part, doesn’t think that drones belong near lakefront vacation properties because of the potential for invasion of privacy. “If you were a cottage owner, how would you feel if you saw a drone flying over your property? It’s intrusive. You go to the lake to get away from things.”

Others disagree. Massie owns a drone but not a cottage, although he frequently visits friends’ vacation properties. When he goes, he brings his drone and takes aerial photos, as well as shoots video while the drone follows someone on a wakeboard or a tube. “You get a view you couldn’t otherwise get,” he says. And he’s found another application: while he used to bring a couple of bottles of wine to thank his hosts, he now adds an aerial image of their cottage and its environs as a gesture of gratitude. “It’s something neat. Not everyone’s got one.”

aerial-view-of-cottagers-on-the-dock
Photo by Alexander Gold/Shutterstock

A growing number of realtors have also found a practical use for the technology: helping to market cottages to prospective buyers. Michael Poczynek, a real estate agent in Charlottetown, who specializes in vacation properties, used to spend a lot of money renting airplanes to shoot videos. Three years ago, he began investing in drones—a far less expensive and safer way of getting similar footage. The novelty factor, especially in the early days, was significant. “It’s a huge attention-getter,” he says. “It’s neat to capture on video what you didn’t even know was there.”

Other rural recreational uses have emerged as well, including organized and informal drone racing events and so called “first person view” (FPV) flying, in which the operator wears virtual reality– style goggles that stream video from the drone’s camera. The effect is like riding on a fast-moving glider that can skirt in and out of trees or around obstacles. The appeal is such that some equipment suppliers have launched drone-racing meets, including one held last August in Collingwood, Ont.

In spite of the proliferation of such novel applications, the technology is neither foolproof nor 100 per cent safe. Aaron Spiro, who runs a production company called DroneOn, which makes drone videos for real estate agent clients, says many things can go wrong. Cellphones can interrupt GPS signals, and drones can lose orientation and fly away. Inexpensive models, Spiro adds, sometimes see their propellers fly off. A drone’s rapidly spinning blades can inflict a nasty wound. (In December, a drone smashed down just a few feet behind World Cup downhill skier Marcel Hirscher during a run down a slalom course—a near miss.)

Officially, these devices are aircraft, and users must pay close attention to Transport Canada regulations, says Doug Anderson, who heads the safety committee of the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada.

Under the updated safety guidelines, individual users may not fly drones over people and buildings; commercial operators, such as real estate agents, have to obtain a flight plan certificate from Transport Canada. Some drone owners feel that these rules—e.g., prohibitions against flying over roadways or at night—make it difficult to operate a drone legally. “I’ve learned quite a bit about the dos and don’ts,” says Dean Northcott, a contractor who takes his drone to his Lake Muskoka, Ont., cottage mostly to shoot boats and landscapes. But, he admits, he sometimes breaks the rules. According to Transport Canada, if a drone is not used for research or commerce, it does not have to be registered, unlike in the U.S., which recently set up a database and requires mandatory registration for all drones. In Canada, hobbyists have to keep their drones below an altitude of 90 metres, even though some models have the technical capability to go as high as 4,000 metres. The operator also must ensure that the device remains within his or her line of sight. Drones are not allowed to fly within a nine-kilometre radius of an airfield, including private airstrips, helipads, and water airports.

That last regulation holds particular relevance for property owners in dense cottage-country areas, such as Central Ontario and the Gulf Islands in B.C., because of the large number of rural airports and community hospital helipads, as well as the presence of float planes on many waterways. If a plane strikes a drone, the device could easily smash the windscreen and injure or kill the pilot, Anderson says. Extensive damage to an engine also can result if a drone is “ingested” in flight. In Ontario, for example, says Anderson, “draw nine kilometre radius circles around all of the cottage-country airports, and it doesn’t leave a lot of territory.”

The mere existence of these regulations, of course, doesn’t ensure that drone users will comply with them or even know that they exist. That lack of awareness will become a more significant factor as hobby drones become more popular.

The problem of responsible use, in fact, looms large for David Klein, who runs Rotorgeeks, a drone-equipment supplier in Toronto, and has seen his order book fill up with shipments to people discovering an activity that was, until very recently, the purview of a relatively small community of hobbyists. His advice: “Be respectful, and stay away from people and dogs. If we don’t act mature and self-regulate, someone else will regulate this pastime for us.”

Dean Northcott agrees: “My advice to new drone owners would be ‘Stay within the rules. Be considerate, be courteous, and don’t make it bad for everyone.’ ”

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