A Yellowknife man was convicted last week of dangerously operating an aircraft – a drone. It’s a first in Canada.
Toufic Chamas, 22, was convicted Friday in Yellowknife’s territorial court on one count of dangerous operation of aircraft.
It’s the first time the use of a drone has been criminalized under the Criminal Code in Canada, Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane told the court.
“I apologize,” said Chamas, standing to address Judge Bernadette Schmaltz.
“I didn’t know how dangerous it was,” he said.
In September of last year, Yellowknife RCMP began receiving complaints from multiple residents who reported seeing a drone flying around buildings in the city’s downtown.
On Sept. 9, 2017, Chamas was observed by RCMP officers sitting on the porch of his residence, as Fane put it, “seemingly piloting the aircraft from his phone.”
RCMP attended Chamas’ residence, informing him of the regulations in place for flying drones recreationally in the city.
Under the Aeronautics Act Interim Order, pilots of drones must fly their unmanned aircraft within 500 metres of themselves, and can only fly outside of controlled or restricted airspace. Drone operators in Canada must also be at least 5.6 kilometres away from areodromes – airports, seaplane bases or any areas where planes land and take off).
In Yellowknife, there are two areodromes: Yellowknife Airport and Yellowknife Bay. Chamas was informed of these regulations and restrictions.
Yet the nuisance drone sights continued. On Sept. 17, after giving Chamas a second warning after he was again seen flying his Phantom DJ Model 4-Pro drone from his balcony, police received reports of a drone flying around Northern United Place and the Northwestel. Officers attended Chamas’ home, where he claimed was unaware he was breaking regulations, despite two previous warnings.
Chamas’ drone was equipped with a camera, which allowed officers to see where the aircraft was: 500 ft. above the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
“Smack dab in the middle,” Fane said, of a flightpath towards the Yellowknife airport. By flying his drone in the controlled airspace, Fane said there could have been significant consequences.
Citing near misses between airplanes and drones, Fane said Transport Canada is concerned about the damage and loss of life a drone could cause in the wrong airspace. At 200 kilometres per hour, Fane said, cockpits could be breached and engines could be damaged by wayward drones.
Fane said he hopes the conviction will deter other drone owners from engaging in similar dangerous conduct.
For the dangerous operation conviction, and a number of breaches related to convictions for dangerous driving of a motor vehicle, the Crown is asked for a $3,000 fine and three year driving ban. Chamas’ lawyer is also asking for the same sentence.
But Schmaltz, after pausing to consider the sheer loss of life that could result from a drone-related accident, said she needed time to consider the joint-submission.
She’s expected a sentencing decision Oct. 25.
Drone operators in Yellowknife must comply with the law of land here, too.
Since the bulk of Yellowknife is situated with a restricted airspace, “all drones over 250 grams require a Special Flight Operator’s Certificate (SFOC) issued by Transport Canada,” stated a city spokesperson.
“The city itself has no permitting or bylaws related to Drone usage.”