First responders and private firms will test flying drones out of sight

A series of trials with Transport Canada is allowing RCMP, OPP and Renfrew County Paramedic Service — and some private companies — to push the limits and fly drones beyond an operator’s line of sight, according to documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request.

Transport Canada assesses safety as operators push for easing of regulations

OPP, RCMP, and paramedics in Renfrew, Ont., are travelling to Orillia, Ont., in April for a week of trials with Transport Canada to test flying farther than operators can see. (OPP)

First responders want to fly drones over highways to drop off defibrillators before an ambulance arrives at an accident. Police are hoping to use the devices for surveillance from afar.

Companies are eager to use drones to survey long stretches of pipelines, monitor vast areas of wildlife or drop of packages to doorsteps.

It's exceptionally frustrating— Ian Glenn, ING Robotic Aviation

However, Canadian regulations won't allow it because of the dangers. Operators can only fly drones as far as they can see.

"It's exceptionally frustrating," said Ian Glenn, CEO of Ottawa drone company ING Robotic Aviation. "My opportunities are all offshore. There is nothing I can do in Canada. I ask to do it, I get denied. So it's that simple — can't do business here."

Drone companies say the devices hold huge potential but they're being held back by rules that say you can't fly them beyond the operator's line of sight. 7:38

But a series of pilot projects and new trials with Transport Canada are allowing first responders — RCMP, OPP and the Renfrew County paramedic service — and soon select private companies, to push the limits and test flying drones "beyond visual line-of-sight," according to documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request.

A briefing note to Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the trials will focus on figuring out if it's safe to fly greater distances and help Transport Canada develop new regulations for all drone users. 

"There's no doubt we are leading a regulatory revolution in aviation," said Renfrew's paramedic chief Michael Nolan. "We know that minutes cost lives and being able to deliver a defibrillator and save time, will save lives." 
"This drone program we're developing with Transport Canada is really breaking down the doors of the legislation and the regulations," said Renfrew's paramedic chief Michael Nolan. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Risks with flying farther

Canada, like other countries, is facing increasing pressure to keep up with quickly advancing drone technology. The U.S. has completed a few projects to fly drones out of sight and France allows it in select conditions, according to  the document.  

The Canadian government has allocated  $33 million in the 2017 budget for drone trials and regulations.

You don't want this thing falling out of the sky and injuring anyone.—Brian Leahey , Renfrew  paramedic services

Allowing operators to fly drones farther than they can see "could introduce significant potential for Canada, and could boost competitiveness in a number of economic sectors," reads the briefing note. "This includes crop surveys for precision agriculture, offshore environmental or wildlife monitoring and infrastructure surveys."

But "Transport Canada is also aware of several risks," it says.

The department has concerns about losing connectivity with the drone, a device hitting an aircraft, or crashing down on people. The upcoming trials are focused on making sure the technology is reliable. 

"The hallmark is safety," said Brian Leahey, Renfrew's deputy chief of paramedic services. "You don't want this thing falling out of the sky and injuring anyone or causing further harm." 

New trials could save lives in the future, say Renfrew's paramedic officials 1:02

Flying up to 4 kilometres away

In April, first responders will test flying drones up to two nautical miles (3.7 kilometres) from the operator. During the week of trials in Orillia, Ont., pilots will have to prove they can safely navigate their drones around trees, buildings and other objects in rural and urban settings. 

If first responders prove it's safe, Transport Canada may grant a special flight operations certificate so these paramedic and police forces can continue testing on the job.
Paramedics in Renfrew have equipped their drones to drop defibrillators. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Leahey said flying out of sight could help when paramedics can't easily access a patient during an emergency.

"They may be behind a treeline, they may be across a creek, at the bottom of a ravine where we can't get down," said Leahey. "The drone is our eyes … We can drop life-saving equipment, first-aid kits, life jackets. Sometimes it's as simple as a rope if someone's out on the ice."

For RCMP it could mean using a drone for search and rescue, surveillance at major events and helping to identify suspicious objects.  

"The [drone] usually carries a camera or sensors capable of obtaining digital images or video," according to a statement from RCMP to CBC News. "Some may have the capability of obtaining infrared images."

Brian Leahey and Scott McLeod, with the Renfrew County paramedic service, use a monitor to fly a drone beyond their sight. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Trials for private companies

Along with Transport Canada's own research at drone testing ranges in Alberta and Quebec, the department is fielding applications from private companies.  

"These trials, or pilot projects, will allow Canada's drone industry to gather valuable experience operating drones in real world conditions, while maximizing the potential of drone technology to Canada," said Transport Canada in a statement to CBC News.

ING Robotic Aviation is applying so it can fly drones in Canada farther to survey, inspect and map areas including pipelines, power lines and wildlife routes.

Glenn hopes it will eliminate the red tape he says is holding his company back.

For example, to track the moose population in the Elliot Lake area for Ontario's Ministry of National Resources in March 2016, Glenn had to have an aircraft follow the drone to make sure that it didn't hit another aircraft.

Ian Glenn, CEO of ING Robotic Aviation, describing barriers to flying drones in Canada 0:41

'I had a big yellow chaperone'

"I had a big yellow chaperone, seven-seat helicopter … follow the [drone] around," said Glenn. "They were using 220 times the fuel we were."

"It makes no sense from an economic point of view. You have to get rid of that chaperone."

New regulations are needed soon, said Glenn.

"The longer they take, the more business leaves Canada," he said. "The less innovation happens in Canada, because we'll go someplace else."

The pilot projects will happen this summer, according to the briefing note.

Transport Canada doesn't have an estimated time for new regulations. The department is still working on implementing regulations for drones under 25 kilograms to fly within sight for recreational and commercial users.

Michael Nunan and Kelly Hewitt of ING Robotic Aviation inspect a drone. The company builds drones to survey, monitor and map vast stretches of land. It also conducted security using drones over the America's Cup yacht race in Bermuda in 2017. (Ashley Burke/CBC )

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Ashley Burke is a video journalist at CBC News Ottawa who files for multiple platforms. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

With files from Dean Beeby