Game of Drones

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (“UAS”) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“UAV”), come in all shapes and sizes – from small and simple remote control vehicles for recreational use all the way to large complex systems that operate at high altitudes and for long distances. The latter are mainly military applications. It is the commercial use of drones that is gaining most of the attention right now. In the United States, it is anticipated that when commercial usage of drones is fully developed, the economic impact could be a whopping $82 billion!

Canada is a world leader in developing the regulatory framework for the use of unmanned systems. Transport Canada[1] authorizes the use of drones pursuant to a Special Flight Operations Certificate (“SFOC”). Transport Canada has issued thousands of SFOCs and the number is growing exponentially. Canada is also well ahead of the United States which so far has authorized only approximately 500 UAS operations.

Commercial users operating drones greater than 25 kilograms need a SFOC. As of late 2014, commercial operators of drones less than 2 kilograms or between 2.1 kilograms and 25 kilograms do not need a SFOC if they can meet certain exemption requirements. It is important to note that users operating under a SFOC exemption must carry a minimum of $100,000 liability insurance.

At this time, most drone operations are only allowed in daylight, at least 9 km from any airport, under 90 metres in altitude and 150 metres away from people, animals, buildings or vehicles. Further, drone operations must be kept away from populated areas and crowds such as concerts and sporting events. Most significantly, for the time being, operations are only allowed within the operator’s unaided line-of-sight. In other words, without the assistance of binoculars or other aids to vision. While some commercial entities operating under a SFOC are allowed beyond the line-of-sight operations if the drone has some kind of anti-collision system, all other users must follow the line-of-sight requirement.

To qualify as a drone pilot in Canada, you don’t need to have a pilot’s license. In 2014, Transport Canada issued formal and comprehensive knowledge requirements for pilots of UAV’s. Eventually, a formal UAV pilot certificate will be required, however, for the time being operators must be knowledgeable about airspace classification, weather and notice to airmen (“NOTAM”) reporting services, aeronautical charts and relevant sections of the CARS.[2]

Presently, while the rules are quite restrictive, flexibility to operate a complex system is available via the SFOC process. Less complicated operations can be accommodated by the SFOC exemptions.

Commercial interests are eager to advance the use of drones as quickly as possible. The applications are almost limitless but there are very real benefits for some commercial activities such as monitoring remote industrial operations, pipeline inspection, TV and movie shoots, police and government surveillance, agriculture and aerial mapping. Famously, Amazon seeks to use drones to augment its fleet of delivery trucks for package delivery. Amazon is presently in the testing stage. In fact, these tests are taking place at a secret location in British Columbia because it was taking too long to get the necessary approvals in the United States.

Operating drones for commercial use is a new and developing business and regulations are being updated regularly. There are fines of up to $25,000 for breach of the existing rules and the potential for violations of both criminal and privacy laws. Those anticipating getting into commercial operation of drones should seek out professional advice at the earliest opportunity.

[1] Transport Canada is the regulator pursuant to the Aeronautics Act and the Canadian Aviation Regulations (“CARS”). In addition to the rules issued by Transport Canada, there may be provincial or even municipal laws that need to be followed.

[2] Particulars of these are found in the “General Safety Practices and Guidance Material” and the “Knowledge Requirements” issued by Transport Canada.


Tags: Gregg Rafter, Aviation, Article