That distant whir of commercial drones buzzing around U.S. airspace? That's the hum of American industry. Potentially billions of dollars worth.
Drone advocates anticipate it will only get louder in coming months, threatening to drown out any noise Canada once made as a leader in regulating unmanned aerial vehicles.
What makes it possible are new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration that came into effect on Monday.
The guidelines, known as "Part 107," allow companies to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles for business purposes, giving a lift to companies keen to exploit the robotic technology for everything from luxury real-estate photography to crop inspection on farms.
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Billed as a "milestone" moment on Monday by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, the standard removes a key obstacle: Would-be drone operators no longer require a pilot's licence to remotely fly a commercial UAV.
For some businesses, it's close to a blue-sky opportunity — even though it won't yet pave the way for companies to fly fully autonomous drones in the U.S. (Amazon began testing such a drone delivery service in B.C. last year.)
Still, Huerta projects that within the year, some 600,000 commercial unmanned aerial vehicles will be filling U.S. airspace. Over the next decade, regulators estimate, the business opportunities presented by Part 107 could generate more than $82 billion.
Restrictions for Part 107
"In a nutshell," Huerta told reporters on Monday, "what the rule provides is for routine commercial drone operations within certain limitations."
The restrictions include requirements that the unmanned aircraft:
- Weighs less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).
- Remains within "visual line of sight" of the remote pilot
- Is only operated during daylight hours (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time).
- Yields right of way to other aircraft.
- Does not exceed a maximum groundspeed of 100 miles per hour (87 knots).
- Does not exceed a maximum altitude of 400 feet.
A full summary of the guidelines can be accessed here. But the main advantage the U.S. rules have over Canada's is a lack of red tape, says Mark Aruja, chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada.
"The big deal is the Americans have implemented their rules with none of the bureaucracy and overhead that we have in Canada," Aruja says. "It's a much more complex process."
Canada does not have defined rules for commercial UAV operation. Instead, the transport minister created a system whereby would-be drone pilots submit applications outlining the flight details. Regional Transport Canada offices would examine the submissions, then determine on a case-by-case basis whether an applicant should be granted a "Special Flight Operations Certificate."
Imagine you're flying your drone and it passes behind a building. The drone may only be a couple hundred of yards from you, but you are now in violation of Part 107 rules - Arthur Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College
But not only is that system inefficient, critics say, it could potentially lead to inconsistent results.
"There would be no end to frustration…because each region would interpret the rules differently," Aruja says.
"You'd be coming out of Toronto doing an agricultural survey, and then you'd have a client in Manitoba. And the person in Manitoba would say, 'I know these rules come from Ottawa, but we have a different take on it.'"
In the past, Aruja says experienced Canadian commercial operators would sometimes partner with an American company. The operators could get a special authorization known as a Section 333 exemption "and would have no difficulty to operate down there."
With an expected surge in American drone pilots following Part 107, Aruja expects fewer contracts to be awarded from the States to Canadians.
"So for a Canadian operator, this may be more of a challenge. How will they compete?"
Until this week, when the FAA rules came into effect, Canada's permitting process was widely seen as the most permissive route for commercial drone operation in North America.
Clearly winning' drone race before 107
"Canada was clearly winning the drone race," says Diana Cooper, the vice-president of legal and policy affairs for the Canadian-American drone services firm PrecisionHawk.
That was mainly due to the prohibitive U.S. requirement that commercial drone operators demonstrate manned flying skills.
Without that hurdle, Cooper says, drone operators need only prove they passed an FAA aeronautical knowledge exam and meet an age requirement of 16 before going ahead with flying a commercial drone.
Afterward, there's no need to ask the FAA for any special permissions, so long as the rules of 107 are adhered to.
As a gauge of the enthusiasm around the UAV commercial license, 3,351 aspiring operators had already signed up for Monday's first exam at 8 a.m.
"From our vantage point, the use of drones for commercial purposes appears to be very popular," says Mark Dennehy, president of Computer Assisted Testing Service, which administers the 60-question exam. The test must be completed within two hours.
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By virtue of simply having now introduced "formal rules" and dropping the need for a pilot's licence, Cooper says, the American provisions "clearly put the U.S. now in a fairly substantial lead."
While she credits Canada for at least having "some sort of mechanism in place" to allow for regular commercial drone applications, "the fact you no longer need to apply for an exemption to operate in the U.S. opens up the market significantly."
Previously, an American operator or company interested in using drones for business would have two options: Either hire an external company to do the flight service on its behalf, or pay up to $8,000 for a staff member to get a pilot's licence for a manned aircraft.
Without the regulatory uncertainty, Cooper predicts, "we're going to see quite a bit more investment in terms of entrepreneurs starting companies in the space, as well as actually investing in startups involved in the space."
The FAA rules don't provide carte blanche for any type of drone to be used anywhere in U.S. air space, of course.
"Imagine you're flying your drone and it passes behind a building. The drone may only be a couple hundred of yards from you, but you are now in violation of Part 107 rules," notes Arthur Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at New York's Bard College.
"This is for certain applications a total deal-breaker."
Watch the FAA announcement for Part 107:
Aside from weight restrictions, for example, the requirement for a drone to remain in a "visual line of sight" rules out some business applications, such as Amazon's secret Prime Air project's autonomous flight delivery system.
Line of sight reaches only about 1.2 kilometres, while Amazon's project allows for a 16-kilometre delivery radius.
"So, you still need to have a human in the loop for many of these applications," Michel says.
"The Jetsons this is not."
In an email to CBC News, Transport Canada reiterated its position that Canada remains a "world leader in unmanned air vehicle (UAV, or drone) safety" and that the FAA rules are "similar" to Canada's Special Flight Operations Certificate process. Since 2010, the federal regulator has issued 6,849 certificates.