The UAV era is here so let’s figure out what the rules are

NATION by Gregory Beatty


“Transport Canada is like the cop at the frat party — everything was fine until we showed up.”

That’s how Civil Aviation Inspector Mark Wuennenberg characterized the current state of regulation around Unmanned Air Vehicles, a.k.a. drones, at a recent University of Regina workshop.

The workshop, hosted by the U of R’s Collaborative Centre for Justice and Public Safety last month, brought industry, government, law enforcement and academic representatives together to talk, learn and think about drones.

There’s a lot to discuss.

On the commercial side, Transport Canada has pretty stringent regulations that require UAV users to obtain a Special Flight Operation Certificate before undertaking a flight. Recreational craft under 35 kg, though, are considered models and are largely unregulated — which is where Wuennenberg’s frat party analogy is relevant.

“The SFOC process is done on a case-by-case basis,” says Wuennenberg. “It’s not just what you’re doing, it’s the ‘what ifs’.

“It’s easy to say, ‘If everything goes right, this is what’s going to happen.’ But what if something goes wrong?” he asks.

“What if you have a lost link and it flies away? What if it hits somebody? Have you thought about these things, and do you have a plan and procedures in place to deal with it?”

SFOC applicants also have to meet operator training and craft maintenance criteria. That includes knowledge of Canadian Aviation Regulations and flight procedures, similar to what aircraft pilots must know.

Risk assessment, meanwhile, typically depends on how close the drone is to built-up areas where the threat to people and property is greater than wilderness areas.

These requirements reflect the fact that drones are becoming more common. Much, much more common.

In 2012, Transport Canada issued 345 SFOCs. Last year it issued 1,672. And as payload and flight technology continue to improve, the scope of UAV use is expected to grow dramatically.

“A Big Elephant”

Right now, UAV’s are used for search and rescue, disaster relief, agricultural surveys, monitoring of public and private infrastructure, and aerial photography.

“I go back in the film industry to the ’70s,” says Jack Tunnicliffe of Java Post Production in Regina. “Aerial photography was very expensive. We would bring in a helicopter and use either a side or nose mount. You could spend $10-20,000 a day.”

Low cost isn’t the only benefit UAVs provide, he adds.

“We can also get images that can’t be captured by other aircraft because we can fly below the tree level and get beautiful angles.”

Java Post has been doing UAV photography since 2010, and Transport Canada rewards operators with good track records, says Tunnicliffe.

“Initially, they’re very strict. You’re limited to 300 feet altitude, and no closer than 300 feet from any buildings or people. Now, all the limitations have been lifted. We’re able to fly at night and at the airport. Typically, you can’t go within a nine kilometre circle of an airport.”

Plenty of issues still need to be addressed, though. And Transport Canada is currently revising its regulatory framework around UAVs.

“It’s a big elephant, so we’re going to bite things off in chunks,” says Wuennenberg. “We’ve had working groups developing new regulations since 2010. There are four phases: below 25 kg and within visual line-of-sight, below 25 kg and beyond line-of-sight, then 25 to 150 kg, and 150 kg and over.”

In May, Transport Canada released a Notice of Proposed Amendment where it set out proposals for regulating line-of-sight UAVs below 25 kg. As before, risk assessment is based on the degree of complexity. If you’re operating in a remote area, requirements will be less onerous than in a city.

Generally, Transport Canada is looking to UAV operators to establish solid procedures for pilot training, aircraft maintenance, reliable documentation of flight operations and emergency protocols.

Many large operators, such as the RCMP — which has around 90 UAVs — have training and maintenance programs in place already. Infrequent users, Wuennenberg suggests, would likely benefit from contracting with third-party providers rather than go through the time and expense to become Transport Canada compliant.

“Does every realtor have a UAV in their trunk, and learn all the rules and how to fly the craft safely, or do they get a third-party operator like they do with home inspections who actually knows what they’re doing?” he says.

Drones Outside My Window

I live on a pedestrian mall in downtown Regina. One night around 10 p.m., I heard a loud buzzing through my open window, then saw a flashing red light zip by.

When I looked out, I saw a guy putting his UAV through its paces for two buddies. It didn’t freak me out, but with plenty of tall buildings, outdoor patios and potential for pedestrians on the narrow mall, it did make me wonder about the safety — and legality — of his actions.

“If he was taking photographs to promote a business or some other activity, he would’ve needed some sort of authorization,” says Wuennenberg. “If he was doing it for recreation, there’s only one regulation that applies [s.602.45 of the Canadian Aviation Regulations] which requires him to operate safely, not in cloud, and not pose a risk for other aviation activities. So he may very well have been legal.”

The new regulations, says Wuennenberg, will better define the term “model”.

“There are traditional modelers who’ve been operating for 50 years and have safe guidelines, and there’s no reason to restrict them,” says Wuennenberg. “So we’ll provide a carve-out to ensure they have the freedom they had in the past. Once that’s done, everyone else will be a UAV and be regulated.”

The Model Aeronautics Association of Canada has 13,000 members who fly model aircraft safely and knowledgeably. If similar discipline could be imposed on recreational UAV users, it would likely go a long way to improving public attitudes toward UAVs [see sidebar].

Transport Canada is accepting public comments on the NPA until Aug. 28. Just Google “Transport Canada” + “Drone” and you’ll find it. After that, regulations will be drafted and published in Canada Gazette I for further input. The goal is to have regulations for line-of-sight UAVs under 25 kg in place by late 2016.

Drone Dos and Drone Don’ts

Spying, trespassing and safety top UAV shenanigans

When Java Post started doing UAV photography, Jack Tunnicliffe recalls, “everyone would run up and say, ‘Is that ever cool!’

Once they got popular in the news and incidents like one landing on the White House lawn started happening, though, the first question out of people’s mouths is [often] ‘What about privacy? Do you spy on people?’”

Transport Canada’s regulatory review focuses on public safety in Canadian airspace, but it’s consulting with the Privacy Commissioner too. In 2013, the commissioner released a report on drones outlining concerns that their growing usage, and development of sophisticated surveillance technologies such as zoom lenses, infrared and radar imaging, and facial recognition software, posed a significant privacy threat.

Government and corporate surveillance, and even lateral citizen-to-citizen surveillance, were all flagged. And as a Transport Canada-sanctioned UAV operator, Tunnicliffe takes those concerns seriously.

“Recently, we shot a commercial at Mosaic Stadium,” he says. “We flew around at night, and at the end we lift up over the stadium to show the new stadium which we created in post-production with our animators. We went out a few days in advance and put notices in people’s mail boxes saying we would be flying a UAV at the stadium on a particular night until a particular time.

“If we fly in the city we always go to city hall and get permission. If we need to block traffic we’ll work with the police. If we go to [a rural municipality], we’ll work with that office. We work with landowners too, and I can’t think of any problems we’ve ever had.”

Criminal Code and trespass laws also apply to UAV operations, says Mark Wuennenberg.

“It’s no different than manned aviation. If you cause a hazard, police have the authority to invoke criminal code provisions as well as whatever could be done through the Aeronautics Act.

“There’s no restrictions about flying a manned aircraft over anybody’s private property, so there’s no restrictions about flying a UAV over private property. Landing and taking off from private property, though, would be trespassing. Even if it crashes, it’s trespassing.” /Gregory Beatty