The growth in the functionality of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) over much of the past decade has been steady. From the early days when advisers, dealers, agronomists and laboratories purchased and used the units to derive valuable insights into crop performance to more recent sales of much simpler designs for hobby uses, UAVs have made a definite impression on agriculture.
Last November at the Unmanned Systems Canada Conference in Toronto, Transport Canada presented draft changes to regulations governing UAVs. Aspects such as compliance, standardization of regulations across Canada and rules pertaining to the Special Flight Operator Certificate (SFOC) were hard-target changes made to the current regulations. Several proposals were made and will be discussed further before implementation in the future.
Much of the discussion centres on growth in the recreational and commercial operator sector, which has challenged Transport Canada’s capabilities. In 2018, for example, it’s estimated that SFOC applications will exceed 6,000.
Canada has been a world leader in regulatory initiatives to support the UAV sector, but risks falling behind other nations unless it modernizes its regulations.
Based on a statement from Transport Canada, draft changes are expected by the summer of 2018. Implementation will take “some time,” as there will be a transition period for Transport Canada to put new processes into place and time for industry to adapt.
Why the regulations are changing now, and why this is becoming a greater concern to Transport Canada is because of the steep learning curve. From their inception, UAVs have seen rapidly evolving new uses, wider availability and distribution, and an increased recognition of potential risks to the public from their operation.
Complicating matters is that the proposed regulations recommend new minimum separation distances to aerodromes (airports, grass airstrips and helipads), people, buildings and built-up areas that could severely limit the use of UAVs in areas like southern Ontario. New rules like the minimum nine-kilometre distance to an aerodrome significantly restrict recreational users to small rural areas in southern Ontario.
In the short term, Transport Canada has created a national standard, negating the patchwork quilt of varied applications of the regulations from province to province. The federal department is also streamlining the SFOC application process for potential owners, a move that will hopefully standardize reviews and speed approvals.
Felix Weber and Brian Hall from Ag Business and Crop Inc. attended last November’s conference. Despite grumblings about “over-regulation” and a “cash grab” by governments, both are optimistic that the changes will safeguard the public and allow the UAV industry to innovate.
According to Weber and Hall, the process has been proactive, insightful and intended to ease issues and uncertainties, not complicate them. For instance, the process of applying for an SFOC is now routed through one officer based in one centralized office in Quebec.
Another consideration for this streamlining process is the rise in numbers of people buying a drone, whether for business or pleasure. Many have made their purchase at department stores and Transport Canada was swamped with applications as a result.
It’s expected the new regulations will differentiate between recreational and commercial users, with different levels of operation authorized to commercial users depending on their equipment, training and operational requirements. Operations in a controlled airspace will likely be required to meet a higher threshold of capability than non-controlled airspace. Recreational users will be much more constrained in where they can fly.
“Transport Canada is actually being quite good trying to explain the regulations and allow commercial people who are flying to conduct their business,” says Hall, who’s based near Stratford, Ont. “They wanted to have a procedure that was standardized across the country, make it streamlined so that people aren’t waiting for months, with clear guidelines for anyone flying an aircraft or a UAV to have a clear understanding of Canadian airspace regulations and safety.”
For instance, with so many airports, grass airstrips and helipads now in use, it is impossible to fly without an SFOC in southern, central or eastern Ontario, with an aircraft that’s more than 250 grams. Farmers and other rural residents know of local airfields near their farms, so it’s understandable that reducing the potential for mid-air collisions, falling UAV units and loss of sight of a unit is a priority for Transport Canada as well. Weber notes that the only place in Ontario where those restrictions are loosened is in the far northern reaches of the province.
The “L” word
Liability is a major concern. Weber says it’s really a matter of creating traceability and increasing safety. Liability is also linked to non-compliant aircraft, however, particularly if operators purchase new cameras or other equipment that change the unit’s original design specifications.
“If an operator with an eBee UAV with a S.O.D.A (sensor optimized for drone applications) camera wanted to use a Sequoia camera on the unit, that’s still compliant because the eBee is designed for that alteration,” says Weber, who’s based near Palmerston, Ont. “However, users need to understand that if that same operator chooses to go outside of the eBee distributor and related alteration kit, then it’s not a compliant UAV.”
For a lot of farmers, the primary concern with the Transport Canada regulations upgrade could be “how does this affect my operation of a UAV?” According to Weber, the new directives should actually make things easier for farmers.
“If they buy a compliant unit, they won’t have to explain as much about the actual UAV,” says Weber. “As soon as they say they’re going to use a compliant unit like an eBee SQ, and attach the compliant document, Transport Canada knows exactly what they’re using.”
Interestingly, the hearings last year saw the greatest push back from operators who were either commercial outfits or hobbyists who had altered their units with non-compliant features, or those who had built their own. Transport Canada representatives began to realize that there are lot of situations — with the film industry, for instance — where operators may have purchased compliant equipment, but needing more advanced, higher-end cameras, had altered the units, thereby making them non-compliant.
Over your head
Since most UAVs are relatively small, they’re not only easy to lose, they’re easy to lose sight of.
“As soon as you fly one of those units, you become a liability, and one of the biggest problems is that lots of people don’t understand what those risks are,” says Weber. “Transport Canada fines are significant.”
There have been documented cases of drones colliding with the wings of commercial airliners or falling out of the sky crashing just metres behind a World Cup downhill skier.
“What should be the required training and testing of any UAV operator?” asks Hall.
Those who bill themselves as flight instructors will soon have to show diligence in how they’ve obtained their training and how extensive the training they provide is. “It just brings more credibility to the whole thing.”
Weber and Hall note their instructor has a four-day instruction course on the operation of a UAV, but under the current regulations, someone might promote their capacity to condense that instruction into just two days. Currently, there is no oversight on training or testing.
“Transport Canada isn’t trying to kill the industry so people can’t use it anymore, they’re trying to help the industry to use it in a safe manner, and that’s reflected in what they’re doing now,” says Weber. “As it’s clarified, then everybody knows where they stand, they know the risk, and it helps the whole industry. Even insurance providers will better understand what’s happening.”