Will Canada soon see tougher drone regulations?
Once exclusively associated with military operations abroad, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, are finding an increasing number of commercial applications in Canadian civilian life — in construction, land surveying, meteorology, urban planning and film/cinematograpy. In light of their growing popularity, Transport Canada is in the process of amending its current regulatory framework, which lacks rules governing the use and purpose of UAVs. Set to be introduced sometime in 2016, these new regulations will render UAVs more accessible for businesses wishing to facilitate their operations with on-demand aerial views all the while ensure that Canadians in the sky and on the ground are safe.
In the past, civilian use of UAVs in Canada was limited by high costs and regulations, the latter requiring UAV operators to obtain permission from Transport Canada in the form of a Special Flight Operator Certificate (SFOC) before each operation. According to Martin Sheehan, partner specializing in, inter alia, aviation law at Fasken Martineau Dumoulin LLP, the cost of UAVs has considerably decreased over the last few years, rendering them more accessible to the public. According to Transport Canada, the number of SFOCs that they have issued has increased 485 per cent in the last two years, going from 345 in 2012 to 1,672 in 2014,
To balance this growing industry with the need to ensure the continued security and safety of Canada’s airspace, Transport Canada announced late last November that operators of very small UAVs (under 2kg) and small UAVs (between 2.1kg and 25kg) would be exempt from the SFOC requirement provided that they abide by strict safety rules, including height restrictions, flight within minimum distances from airfields and buildings as well as visual line‑of‑sight requirements.
On May 28th, 2015, Transport Canada released a Notice of Proposed Amendment to the current Canadian Aviation Regulations. The degree to which operators would be regulated under the proposed amendments varies according to the level of risk associated with the UAV operation. For instance, operators flying small UAVs would continue to be exempt from SFOC requirements, however, those operating in urban areas, for which an SFOC is currently required, would need to have a pilot permit. Also, unlike under the current regulations, UAVs would be permitted to fly where there is no visual line of sight, but an SFOC would be required.
As UAV technology becomes more accessible, the need for lawyers specializing in this field is certain to increase. According to Mr. Sheehan, unlike with traditional manned aircrafts, those using UAVs are generally not familiar with the intricacies of aviation law. Legal practitioners will not only be called upon to assist businesses using UAVs with obtaining insurance contracts or negotiating service contracts, but also help them to navigate a range of privacy issues such as the collection of personal information and expectations of privacy as well as to deal with any unwanted fallout when a UAV operation goes wrong.
These are early days for a technology that is already revolutionizing the way business is being conducted in a variety of domestic commercial sectors. UAVs and their applications will continue to develop and expand significantly over the coming years. While the 2016 regulations are not expected to address transnational UAV operations, such operations are clearly in the back of Canada’s mind as it intends to adopt minimum standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization of the United Nations as well as work with the US to align their respective regulatory frameworks “where practical”. Regulating UAVs and their applications within Canadian borders, therefore, is just the beginning of integrating this technology into our daily life.
Caitlin Szymberski is a writer and lawyer based in Montreal.