Canada's drones taking off

Written by Ryan Delaney for northcountrypublicradio.org

The United States is inching towards the acceptance of unmanned aircraft, or drones. Drones offer huge economic potential, but also raise safety and privacy concerns. Those concerns have slowed the growth of commercial drones in the United States, but in Canada, the industry is flourishing.

There have been 1,020 small unmanned aerial vehicle flights—what most people call drones—in Canada this year, according to the Canadian transportation officials. That is up from 945 flights in 2013 and 347 in 2012, Transport Canada reported.

"In Canada, as globally, U.A.V. is exploding," said Joe Barnsley, an aviation attorney in Winnipeg, Canada. "It’s a huge growth area."

The U.S. drone industry, however, is simmering more than exploding. How does more than 1,000 drone flights in Canada compare to upstate New York, which has one of the Federal Aviation Administration's six approved test sites? The group running the test site, the Northeast U.A.S. (unmanned aircraft systems) Airspace Research Alliance (NUAIR), just won approval for only six flight operations. That’s after years of effort and none of those operations are fully underway.

Transport Canada approved 155 drone flights in 2011 and they've signed off on 1,020 so far this year.

Slow progress

Getting approval to use a drone is much simpler in Canada, according to Roger Haessel of the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. "You can apply to Transport Canada for what's called a Special Flight Operating Certificate. And what you’re doing there, is you’re making the case to Transport Canada what you’re going to be doing," he said.

As long as he lists flight details and safety procedures, a drone operator is free to take off, as long as the drone weighs less than 50 pounds, doesn't fly above 400 feet, and does not leave the operator’s sight. "You're basically making the case that what you're doing is legitimate and not going to cause any safety concerns," said Haessel.

By some estimates, the Canadian drone industry is almost a decade ahead of the United States. Haessel said he senses a lot of frustration among the drone industry in the United States. "People feel that they’re being stymied at the regulatory level," he said.

The F.A.A. has a target date of late next year to finally begin to roll out regulations for widespread drone use. It has been a slow, slow process to get this far.

NUAIR spent the better part of a year just going through the F.A.A.’s application process to become a test site. Then NUAIR had to get formal approval from the F.A.A. to set up shop, which took another eight months. Each separate test flight it wants to conduct requires a Certificate of Authorization (COA). A COA is similar to Canada’s certificates, but in the United States it takes several weeks to earn a stamp of approval. The average application takes 10-20 days to be approved in Canada, according to Transport Canada.

Dangerous precedent

It’s all enough of a hassle that many drone operators are choosing to just break the law. "There are still a fair number of people who are flying U.A.V.s in America, Haessel said, "Because they seem to be less and less concerned what the rules are." That is a dangerous precedent, he added. "You’ve got people flying that maybe aren’t going through the appropriate training and regulatory approval process that would be prudent."

The ease of regulation in Canada has allowed that country to speed ahead of America for the economic benefits of private drone use. Flyterra, a U.A.V. company that has one of the first approved drone flights in upstate New York, is located in Quebec, not the United States, because until now that’s where clients have been. "I think it was easy for us to cross the border and it worked out really well that the NUAIR alliance was approved as a test site. And they really opened their arms to us," said Mike Hogan, a business development manager with the company.

Precision Hawk, another company with approval to operate in upstate New York, has offices in Canada and the United Kingdom, along with its North Carolina headquarters.

The early uses of unmanned aircraft in New York mirror their use in Canada. Agriculture is a big field. But in Canada, they are also being used to map oil fields and pipeline. Flyterra has a contract to inspect wind turbines in Kingston, Ontario, Hogan said.

No different than a ladder

Barnsley, the aviation lawyer, sees the day the United States will be a powerful player in the commercial drone realm. "You’re a much larger market than we are, so I think you’ll see you’ll catch up pretty quickly," he said.

So as Canada embraces small drones and the United States inches toward developing a thorough regulatory system, is Canada skipping the privacy and safety requirements American regulators are so concerned about?

Barnsley said as with the F.A.A., there is no way Transport Canada is an agency equipped to develop privacy rules. But, he said that is alright, because the bones of good privacy law are already in place. "I don’t think you have separate privacy for boats. I don’t think you do for cars. I don’t think you do for telescopes or ladders," he pointed out.

He said courts should be able to adopt existing privacy laws to fit drones, without rewriting the whole rulebook. "The vehicle they use is just coincidental," he said.