07/03/2014 12:29 EDT | Updated 09/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Airport drone incidents raise security concerns

An RCMP investigation into a drone sighting near Vancouver International Airport on Monday is raising concerns about the potential threat the unmanned aerial vehicles could pose to passenger planes.

"It is not just unsafe to operate a drone near an airport, it is actually illegal to operate a drone near an airport," said YVR's vice-president of operations Steve Hankinson.

But it keeps happening. In March 2013 an Alitalia pilot reported spotting a drone less than 100 metres away as the airplane approached the runway at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

The Canadian Transportation Agency is already investigating an earlier incident, in which video — shot from a drone — was posted on YouTube showing a landing passenger jet at Vancouver airport.

Former CSIS agent Michael Juneau-Katsuya said it could be possible for a drone to disable a aircraft engine, under the right circumstances.

"Hitting one of the reactors, one of the motors, could cause some problem. Because they carry fuel, they are a piece of metal and plastic that could cause enough damages just like a big bird."

But Juneau-Katsuya downplays the security risk of drones being used in an attack.

"These kind of drones cannot carry a payload of explosives to cause damage, and to be capable to hit a motor or a reactor when the plane is moving, you've got to be extremely lucky and extremely agile."

Automatically disabled

Some manufacturers install a no-fly zone feature that automatically disables the drone near an airport.

"In the first 1.5 miles or 2.4 kilometres away from a safety zone, you'll be unable to take off," said McGill University professor emeritus David Bird, who edits the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems.

Bird believes it's time to go further and require permits and even limit hobbyists to designated areas, following Monday's incident at YVR.

"I've basically been waiting for something like to happen, and I hope that Transport Canada finally now decides to act, to do something, to basically regulate use of drones by hobbyists."

But Transport Canada said it's in no rush to change any regulations, and for now it continues to fall to police to investigate drone intrusions at airports.

Under Canadian rules, if a drone is under 35 kilograms, operators are only required to maintain a line of sight and avoid getting too close to congested areas or restricted airspace like an airport.

In the U.S., the rules are much more strict. Drones cannot travel within eight kilometres of an airport without permission from the control tower.

The RCMP said if they can track down the person who was flying the drone near YVR Monday, they will consider laying charges.