The highs and lows of drones — and the new rules aimed at making them safer
Growing number of recreational users poses risks, say pilots
Certified drone pilots and transportation safety officials say some risky behaviour is going on as more and more people begin using remotely controlled aircraft to gather aerial pictures and video.
"If you're up 150 to 200 feet and you come down, you're going to hit somebody and somebody's going to get hurt," said Jim Turnbull, a professional operator in the Saint John area.
Turnbull wasn't impressed when he heard that two drones were spotted above the city's uptown during the Moonlight Bazaar event in July.
Crowds of people had filled Canterbury Street to see performers and vendors beneath a seven-metre inflated moon.
That kind of flight would require an advanced pilot certification and a special operation certificate from Transport Canada.
Turnbull doubts an operation certificate was issued.
"The margin for error isn't there, an alternative landing spot isn't there, plus there's a lot of overhead wires, a lot of cellphone activity," he said.
"So, there's a whole bunch of ways the thing can go sideways."
If a drone were to lose one of its four engines, for example, it would become a two-pound projectile, hurtling toward the ground with its propellers spinning at 10,000 revolutions per minute.
Under new rules that came into effect June 1, anyone who wants to fly a drone that weighs between 250 grams and 25 kilograms must first pass an exam and become certified, use a drone that has been registered with Transport Canada, and follow a number of safety rules, such as staying away from people and airports.
The maximum penalties for not doing so range from $1,000 to $25,000.
Drone pilot trainer Chris Neuss of St. John's, N.L.-based AltoMaxx said the kind of space you're in is the most important consideration for a drone pilot.
There are restrictions around airports, for instance, partly because drones operate on the same sort of frequencies as a lot of other technology, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, radio and television.
Need to be alert
"You need to be really hyper-aware of anything that can cause interference, any sort of dangers that you may pose to aircraft or manned aircraft and, of course, people and people's property nearby as well," said Neuss.
Neuss was in Fredericton to train and test recreational flyer Myles Murphy, who plans to use his drone to take photos and videos, mainly near his home along the St. John River in Burton.
Murphy spent $1,600 on the drone and felt it was worthwhile to spend another $1,000 on the training course to help him get his basic-level certification.
"You need to know lots of things about weather and weather patterns and regulations," said Murphy.
"There's an insane amount of regulations that you need to know."
Chris Neuss, vice-president of AltoMaxx, is concerned some people either don't know the regulations exist or don't know what they say.
"They also don't understand the compliance side of things or what happens when you violate that regulation."
A caution for parents
Andre Faust of Fredericton decided to try the exam on his own and passed it July 23.
He already had experience flying and technical background from getting his marine captain and SCUBA certifications. But he still spent about 60 hours studying.
Faust flies a drone for a sideline photography business. He started a Facebook group for drone enthusiasts about a year ago that now has about 160 members.
Faust doesn't think New Brunswick has a problem with rogue drone operators, but he does worry about parents buying high-end drones for their children and letting them fly irresponsibly.
"They have no sense. They're everywhere. … The regulation says: You have to keep your drone in line of sight."
Minimum age requirements
Faust said inexpensive toy drones that don't go farther than 100 feet, or about 30 metres, are the best option for children.
Under Transport Canada rules, a would-be operator has to be at least 14 years old to take the "small basic exam," which is required for piloting drones in uncontrolled airspace away from bystanders.
An operator has to be 16 years old to take the small advanced exam, required to fly in controlled airspace, over bystanders or within 30 metres of bystanders.
Transport Canada "strongly recommends" attending a drone flight school before attempting an exam.
But Faust said anyone can have an accident.
"Whether they're certified or not, it's just a matter of time that something will happen — like a collision. A four-pound drone stuck in the window of an airplane, it's going to do something."
Turnbull said he personally experienced a close call just last weekend, even though he, as a drone operator, had followed all the proper procedures.
He had obtained a special operation certificate to fly over an event on the St. John River near Belleisle Bay. And a helicopter unexpectedly flew into the airspace.
It would have been a massive fireball.- Jim Turnbull, drone operator
There were about 500 people on the ground and 200 boats in the water, said Turnbull.
Luckily, he made the right guess about what to do with his drone to stay out of the helicopter's way.
If he'd guessed wrong, "it would have been a massive fireball," he said.
Turnbull said his shirt was drenched with perspiration when he landed. His partner, who was there spotting him that day, has filed an incident report with Transport Canada.
25,000 drones registered so far
Ryan Coates, a member of the department's Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Task Force, said the new regulations are an effort to respond to the growing number of drone users and create a culture of safety.
So far, more than 40,000 exams have been taken and about 25,000 drones have been registered.
"I just think the volume and the growth that we're seeing month over month since we've published the rules demonstrates that people are getting the message and understanding that there are obligations that come with flying a drone."
But Coates admitted Transport Canada doesn't know how many drones are out there.
Could help disentangle whales
Turnbull emphasized that a great many responsible pilots are putting drones to good uses.
"In fact, there's leading-edge research that's going on now, where you could actually have a drone equipped with a cutter on the bottom, a surgical cutter, to take these ropes off of these whales that are getting caught and trapped in fishing gear."
Neuss confirmed the company he works for is providing drone training for many different professionals.
"Everything from the Special Rovers Rescue Team in Newfoundland to sole proprietors who just want to get up and take some nice pictures and footage … we've done fire departments, police departments, real estate agents, companies that do surveying and mapping," he said.
"It's a lucrative thing for most businesses and industries to get into."