OTTAWA — The RCMP has warned the federal government that drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — pose a terrorism threat to critical infrastructure in Canada.
Yet a year later, and more than 4½ years after a regulatory overhaul began, Transport Canada has still not developed tougher rules around unmanned flight.
In Paris, mystery drone flights near iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides museum, the U.S. Embassy and government buildings — just weeks after terror attacks on the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine — left the French capital rattled.
Police arrested three Al Jazeera journalists who said they were just filming a news report on the strange unmanned flights. The operator or operators of several suspicious drones spotted in Parisian skies remains unidentified.
In Washington, an intoxicated federal employee crash landed a drone on the White House lawn, exposing a security gap that also faces law enforcement here: many small unmanned aircraft models cannot be detected, let alone shot down by security forces.
Last year the RCMP flagged that very problem. A threat assessment dated March 5, 2014, warned that critical Canadian facilities are targets at risk, and it noted drones have been flown dangerously close to political figures in Europe.
Much of the document is redacted, but it notes that drones have already been used to deliver drugs into a Canadian prison, and it may be only a matter of time before they’re used for more devastating ends.
The document says extremists have “demonstrated they are ready to use UAVs enabled with GPS (global positioning systems) to carry out aerial surveillance in real time of targets and to transport improvised explosive devices and chemical or biological agents.”
“We cannot ignore the eventual use of a UAV to commit attacks against critical infrastructure,” the RCMP said.
The document, obtained under the Access to Information law by La Presse newspaper, says technology to allow commercial pilots to detect and avoid drones is critical for airline security but may not be available for several years.
Eight months later, in November 2014, after the RCMP’s Critical Infrastructure Criminal Intelligence Assessment team issued that assessment, Transport Canada introduced new guidelines that allow small drones to be lawfully flown under certain conditions.
Those guidelines were intended to simplify small drone operations in civil airspace, while the department continues to develop safety rules for more complex and larger drones.
However, the focus of those rules, in development since June 2010, is on facilitating all the commercial applications that are popping up for the new technology — everything from police surveillance to film and broadcast, from engineering to insurance or agriculture, to name just a few.
Transport Canada spokesman Ben Stanford could not provide a timeline for when new safety regulations would be ready. He referred questions about how the RCMP’s security concerns would be addressed to Public Safety, although he acknowledged Transport Canada is the regulator.
The RCMP did not immediately reply to the Toronto Star’s inquiries about whether it had submitted recommendations around any new regulations to Public Safety. Public Safety replied generally, saying it is working with partners to protect Canada’s critical infrastructure.
Pilots and civil aviation authorities are worried drones operated by hobbyists are a risk for aircraft in Canadian skies.
But the RCMP is clearly worried about terrorists — not just hobbyists or farmers using drones to scan their crops.
It cites “at least 13 cases between 1995 and 2013” in which extremists planned or tried to modify remotely operated model airplanes to carry out attacks.
In 10 of those cases, it said the plot included loading different types of explosives, “notably C4 plastic explosives, grenades or improvised explosive devices.” In the other three, the RCMP said the plan was to disperse chemical or biological agents, notably anthrax, sarin or mustard gas.”
The plotters targeted government buildings, such as Pakistan’s army headquarters in 2012, the Capitol building in Washington and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.
The RCMP said most of the plots — 57 per cent — were disrupted, while others either failed or were never “operationalized.”
It said experts are divided over the feasibility of a successful attack on critical infrastructure, particularly whether they could be used to precisely hit — within a few centimetres — a specific target.
However, the RCMP document says many drones are commercially available, accessible online and can travel great distances. Some can carry fairly heavy loads.
It urges additional scientific studies to determine the feasibility of an attack and the protective measures needed.
Recreational users are permitted to fly small drones in daytime only in areas far from airports, and must keep the drone within eyesight, as long as they are not over 35 kilograms. Drones over 25 kilograms used for work or research require a special permit.
The number of permits issued by Transport Canada has soared from 66 in 2010 to 1,672 in 2014.