Drones have regulators, hobbyists on collision course
Canada's aviation overseers face their biggest challenge in generations
As drones get better and cheaper, they're becoming a more common sight in the sky, but they're also presenting Canadian aviation officials with their biggest challenge in generations.
"The technology at this point is surpassing the legislation," says Lee Mauro, who practices aviation law with the Vancouver firm Harper Grey. "It's moving at a pace where it has outpaced the legislative ability to keep up to it."
The growth of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been stratospheric in recent years. The term that once invoked images of hostile-looking unmanned military aircraft now captures anything from a remote controlled multi-propeller helicopter, to an insect-sized robot.
Watch Chris Brown's full documentary about the growing drone highway in Canada's skies, airing on CBC TV's The National on Monday, May 19, at 10 p.m.
"I geek out every time," says hobbyist Noel Rubin.
Rubin is a special effects designer with a background in physics. He spent $2,000 on a custom-built drone that he bought the components for online.
His flying machine has three arms, each supporting two propellers.
"It's a very stable configuration and it just looks cool!," Rubin says.
"There's a mini-computer that controls each motor. It has a GPS and a compass. It's almost like the computer is flying it, you just have to tell it where to go."
Rubin's UAV is designed to carry a stabilized GO-PRO camera. It shoots high-resolution video and uses WIFI to beam the images back to the operator on the ground as the craft is flying.
Under current Canadian law, anyone can fly a UAV or take video with it for fun, as long as the machine weighs less than 35 kilograms and is not being used for a commercial purposes. Hobby UAVs also have to stay under 400 feet and within line-of-sight of the operator.
But Mauro says the notion that today's drones qualify as "model aircraft" under existing Canadian rules is outdated.
"A quad-copter isn't a model of anything. It's its own thing, and that's not described in the legislation at all."
Peering cameras flying overhead raise significant privacy concerns, but Mauro says safety is arguably a more pressing issue.
Recently, it was revealed Canada's Transportation Safety Board is investigating a case where an Air Canada pilot landing at Vancouver International Airport spotted a drone a few dozen metres from his jet.
"Aircraft are tested for bird strikes on a regular basis and the industry is highly regulated and safe, Mauro says. "But they are not tested for a 70 pound (35 kilogram) carbon-fibre drone flying into the engine or the windscreen. And I think that is a safety issue we are seeing now."
Transport Canada's current model aircraft/UAV rules have been on the books since 2008. They require all operators flying for commercial purposes to get a permit and file a sort of flight plan, a process that usually takes between 10 and 20 days.
The department issued 945 so-called "flight operation certificates" last year, and observers expect the number to be higher in 2014.
North Guardian UAV Services, founded by Paul Baur and Jeff Howe in North Vancouver, is among the new companies filing frequent requests.
"I'll tell you, the last six months have been totally phenomenal," Baur says of the demand for his company's drone services.
Earlier this spring, North Guardian UAV Services was hired by the Yukon government to inspect an old bridge on the Ross River, a job unsuitable for a helicopter.
"It [a regular helicopter] might blow the bridge away," Howe says.
"This is different. It's a lot less impact, zero emissions, and the quality of the video speaks for itself."
The company also has a contract to work with Vancouver-area fire departments to use drones to deploy heat sensors. The drones would fly inside buildings that are on fire, carrying or deploying sensors so crews can monitor temperatures and make better decisions about when structures are at risk of collapse.
A Transport Canada official who asked not to be identified told CBC News companies that have demonstrated a track record of good drone-use behaviour are increasingly being granted multi-use permits. But the official conceded the speed of change in the emerging industry is dizzying.
"It's hard to regulate something that's evolving so quickly," the official said.
Noel Rubin says as a hobby user he wouldn't be opposed to more controls being put on people who are flying for fun, even if it means licensing users.
"There is a lot of science in this and a lot of expertise, this isn't a toy. There should be some level of qualification," he told CBC News as he manoeuvred his UAV at a park near Vancouver's Science World.
Mauro, the aviation lawyer, agrees. "I think it only makes sense to have some kind of licensing when it comes to the pilots of these aircraft. We license drivers. These (UAVS) create a safety concern for the public and it makes sense to license them."
The Transport Canada official CBC News spoke to said the idea has been discussed within the department's working group on UAVs, but for the moment there is no plan to move in that direction.
In the meantime, watching Youtube appears to be at least part of the current enforcement strategy.
Amiel De Guzman, a hobby user who frequently posts his drone videos on-line, said an "aviation inspector" e-mailed him and advised him he was flying too close to buildings.
De Guzman says the government official appeared concerned about some footage he shot near apartment buildings that line Vancouver's English Bay.
"I've got several videos on Youtube and they got referenced," De Guzman says.
"He pretty much told me I have been flying it in areas hazardous to people, and if I want to keep on flying I may need a permit."
One of De Guzman's videos shows his drone crashing into the top of a tree.
"It actually went out of signal once," he says. "Thankfully, it hit a tree."
Many UAVs have built-in safety features and are pre-programmed to return to the point from which they took off if they move out of range or are about to run out of power. But other features, such as transponders that might potentially warn off drones from hitting objects - or each other - are still likely several years away from being standard.
Mauro says it would make sense in urban areas to limit where recreational users could fly.
"There's nothing wrong with establishing a block of airspace, somewhere where drones are flying and where people can operate drones in a safe way, away from the public."
Transport Canada has a working group that has been considering new rules for using drones for several years. A spokesman says the group is continuing to discuss the possibilities for better regulating UAVs.
For the moment though, one user said it still feels like "the wild west" as Canada's drone business takes off.
[Watch Chris Brown's full documentary about the growing drone highway in Canada's skies, airing on CBC TV's The National on Monday, May 19, at 10 p.m.]