Published: 4:40 PM 8/10/2014
BY SELENA ROSS, STAFF REPORTER
An Air Canada Jazz flight heading out of Halifax this week narrowly missed hitting a flying object at a high altitude, a type of encounter that could be very dangerous.
The pilot reported it as a possible drone, a risk that is becoming more common in Canadian airspace. However, as is also fairly typical with this new technology, it’s still unclear what the object was.
Experimentation with unmanned flying vehicles has surged in the past year or two, but it can be hard to regulate them. Just four months ago, air traffic controllers in Nova Scotia were faced with a last-minute announcement that an American military drone was flying over the province.
The object spotted on Sunday was a “red and white vertical tube with rotor” less than 300 metres above the Jazz turbofan plane, which was on its way to St. John’s, N.L., according to the pilot’s report to Transport Canada.
The plane was climbing at the time but had reached nearly 6,000 metres, an altitude much higher than most drones fly, said Inna Sharf, a mechanical engineer at McGill University in Montreal developing technology for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.
“There’s no such thing as ‘most UAVs’ because it’s still such a young market,” Sharf said.
However, the pilot’s description made her guess that the object could possibly be part of a science experiment taking atmospheric measurements, rather than a drone.
Drones are built in a wide range of sizes and designs for different purposes, Sharf said.
Two common uses of the technology, military reconnaissance and weather forecasting, both tend to require machines that fly at a high altitude. But in those cases, they also generally look a certain way.
“At this kind of altitude, a UAV is going to look like a small plane,” measuring several metres in both length and wingspan, she said.
“A tube with a rotor? Red and white? Doesn’t sound like the conventional sort of drone-UAV.”
Police are likely the most common users of drones in Canada right now, for surveillance and search-and-rescue purposes, she said.
The drones that Sharf uses don’t fly higher than roughly 15 metres, she said.
Air Canada Jazz is also stumped by the encounter, said spokeswoman Manon Stuart.
“At this point, we don’t know what the object was,” she said. “It’s certainly not something that happens often.”
Pilots have reported a handful of near-misses with possible drones in Canadian airspace, most in the past two years.
In cases where the initial investigation suggests criminal intent, the matter can be referred to police, said Chris Krepski, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board. If it was an accident and “there’s an opportunity to advance safety,” the board itself would follow up, Krepski said.
A case from June 2 near the Victoria airport was somewhat similar to the mystery of the Halifax-St. John’s flight.
A turboprop aircraft was flying at 3,800 metres when it passed a “black, wingless,” three-metre object that, to the pilot, looked like a UAV.
In both cases, not enough information has been gleaned to refer the incidents to police or to take action within the safety board, said Krepski.
“We didn’t even open a file for them.”
Incidents can also be handled by Transport Canada if it looks like someone was flying a drone in breach of the agency’s regulations, which are among the strictest in the world.
Those relatively comprehensive rules raise even more questions about what a drone would have been doing flying at 6,000 metres near Halifax, said Sharf.
Anyone who wants to fly a drone must first get a federal flight operation certificate, she said.
“To get that certificate, you really have to be within the line-of-sight operation, which means you never lose sight of your vehicle.”
Anyone remotely piloting a drone near a plane’s cruising altitude was either doing so against regulation, or had a different kind of permission, she said.
Transport Canada had not responded to a request for information by Wednesday evening.
One incident in early April was flagged for followup. The New York air operations centre called Atlantic Canadian air controllers to report that a Global Hawk UAV had just entered Canadian airspace. The report was classified as a Nova Scotia occurrence.
According to the report, controllers in Moncton had prior knowledge of the Global Hawk’s visit, by they didn’t know its route through Canadian airspace.