Innovation or Complication: The Emerging Regulatory Landscape for Drone Use in 2018

The use of drones recreationally and commercially continues to grow exponentially in Canada. While the commercial use of drones has been governed by rules set out in various regulatory exemptions (or by the requirement to obtain a special flight operations certificate (“SFOC”) from Transport Canada), the recreational use of drones that weigh under 35 kg was previously simply subject to guidelines encouraging users to “fly safely”. More recently, the Minister of Transport issued a series of interim orders respecting these aircraft. The current interim order No. 8 regulates all recreational use of drones weighing between 250 g and 35 kg.

UAS Task Force

In 2017, Transport Canada established the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) Task Force, staffed with members with expertise in the areas of flight operations and technical analysis, policy and regulatory planning and stakeholder engagement, engineering and certification standards, and service delivery.

In establishing the UAS Task Force, Transport Canada is recognizing that the increasing use of drones is a departmental priority, as well as one of the top safety risks in aviation. Transport Canada has stated that it aims to provide a regulatory environment for drones that will promote innovation and economic growth and address emerging issues through collaboration with industry stakeholders.

Proposed Regulations

The UAS Task Force has assisted with the creation of the Proposed Regulations Amending the Canadian Aviation Regulations (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) which would apply to all drones, commercial and recreational, weighing between 250 g and 25 kg being operated within visual line of sight (“VLOS”).

The Proposed Regulations divide drones into three operating categories, with more lenient or stringent regulatory requirements depending on weight and area of operation. The Proposed Regulations also introduce new definitions: a “very small unmanned aircraft” has a maximum take-off weight of more than 250 g but not more than 1 kg while a “small unmanned aircraft” has a maximum take-off weight of more than 1 kg but not more than 25 kg. The Proposed Regulations stipulate different compliance requirements if a small UAS is being used for “limited operations”, in rural areas and away from populations, or if used for “complex operations”, near built up areas, airports or aerodromes, or people.

Common to all three operating categories is the need for operator training and the requirement that the drone operator carry liability insurance of at least $100,000.

Operations that involve drones weighing more than 25 kg, operated beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS”), or used to transport payloads will require an SFOC.

Transport Canada intends for the new Regulations to come into effect sometime in 2018.

What’s Next?

Through a series of consultation sessions conducted across Canada in 2017, the UAS Task Force identified a number of stakeholder concerns and recommendations regarding the Proposed Regulations. With respect to commercial use, the UAS Task Force heard concerns that commercial drone users need a predictable regulatory framework, and that the ongoing requirement for SFOCs results in administrative burden and hinders commercial use in many sectors. For recreational users, the UAS Task Force recognized concerns that the prohibitive cost of compliance could have a negative effect on owners and operators, and that implementation of complex rules for use might result in reduced compliance.

The UAS Task Force has also launched the UAS Centre for Expertise in Dorval, Quebec. The stated goals of the Centre of Expertise are to:

(a) Streamline and standardize the SFOC process;
(b) Provide expert advice to regional inspectors;
(c) Monitor SFOC performance; and
(d) Engage stakeholders on current issues and safety promotion.

For now, it appears that Transport Canada’s focus is on finalizing regulations with respect to VLOS operations of drones. With respect to BVLOS operations, the UAS Task Force has supported several early pilot projects including short range BVLOS trials by first responders. Transport Canada has also announced its intention in 2018 to select and authorize trials of BVLOS technology with further industry stakeholders. These trials will likely be an early step in a movement towards developing regulations for BVLOS operations, potentially opening the door to a host of new uses and markets for drone operators in Canada.

Time will tell whether the current regulatory strategy of Transport Canada will promote innovative drone use and collaboration between industry stakeholders and government, or only add further administrative burden and create additional challenges for commercial and recreational drone users alike.