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Know before you fly

Tightening drone regulations is necessary. But knowledge of the law among recreational users is also required.

A drone flying near an airport

I have a fascination for drones —something I suspect connects back to my passion for flying radio-controlled helicopters in my younger days. To me, flying RC helicopters always felt more real than playing video games. I wasn’t sitting in the aircraft, of course, but felt I had some control over a machine that can hover, glide, spin and barrel roll in mid-air.

Drones can potentially do all that and much more. Legally speaking, however, flying drones is no child’s game, as someone learned the hard way last month. Transport Canada slapped a $2,750 fine on the uncertified pilot for flying his drone in downtown Toronto over huge crowds celebrating the Raptors’ iconic NBA championship win, and again during the victory parade the following week. In doing so, he reportedly violated the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) on 11 counts, including not registering his drone and flying it three nautical miles from an airport.

 “Drones are aircraft – which makes you a pilot,” Transport Canada warns on its website. “When you fly your drone, you’re sharing the skies with other drones and aircraft.” RC helicopters too can qualify as drones if they meet specific criteria under the CARs whose Part IX came into force on June 1 this year. The regulations define drones as “remotely piloted aircraft system” or RPAS. They possess “a set of configurable elements, consisting of a remotely piloted aircraft, its control station, the command and control links and any other system elements that may be required during flight operation.” Note how the terminology places equal focus on the human pilot and the machine.

Pilots must get certification from the Minister of Transport. For this, they must clear knowledge exams and/or complete flight reviews (depending on whether the operation is ‘basic’ or ‘advanced’). Pilots are also subject to recency requirements – the certificate, clearing of exams, flight reviews, and recurrent training should have occurred within two years preceding the flight. Pilots should be at least 14 years of age for basic operations and 16 for advanced, unless supervised by someone already certified. All drones that weigh between 250 grams and 25 kilograms must be registered with Transport Canada. Pilots must fly their drones where they can see them at all times without visual aids.

The CARs apply irrespective of whether drones are flown for research, recreation, business or commercial use, but are otherwise mostly permissive, and intended to foster business and manage the risks of sharing the skies.

But drones present a problem unique to few other new-age technologies.  Though they are widely available and easy to use, there is little civic awareness about the dangers they present and how laws regulate their use, as the incident involving the Raptors’ fan shows.

The belief that drones are toys is largely a creation of market economics. Online retail stores from Amazon to Walmart bracket drones with RC helicopters and quadcopters, all of which are categorized as toys or games. On the face of it, there’s no harm in this. But, it masks the reality that drones are more serious than mere playthings, capable of gravely compromising aviation security and intruding privacy.

Transport Canada’s primary touchpoints for safety education messages pertain to purchase and use of RPAS, including interaction with technology websites, retailers and manufacturers (as stated in the Regulatory Impact Risk Statement, published in January 2019). Under the CARs, the manufacturers must provide a declaration to the Minister of Transport specifying the model, take-off weight, and intended operations, and make documentation available to each owner, containing a maintenance program, operating manual and mandatory actions. By and large, consumer protection laws in Canada require retailers and e-commerce websites to provide accurate information about the products they sell, including the costs, taxes, terms and conditions, and warranties. However, most retailers (online or in-store) do not expressly inform or warn purchasers about the legal requirements of using drones because the laws do not clearly mandate it.

Transport Canada has also launched outreach and innovation initiatives over the last few years by collaborating with industry members and other government entities in Canada and the U.S. to incentivize research and approve test ranges. Industry bodies like Unmanned Systems Canada/Systèmes Télécommandés Canada have been doing yeoman service in all areas of drone use. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but there’s an urgent need to enhance the effort and investment in awareness campaigns targeting the general public that use visual line-of-sight drones for recreation.

The CARs do not make a distinction between recreational and non-recreational use anymore (the former are likely to be ‘basic’ operators and the latter ‘advanced’). CBC reported that Transport Canada recorded 33 mid-air conflicts between drones and airplanes in Ontario’s skies alone and 85 across Canada in the first six months of this year. Given that non-recreational use accounted for only 9.1 per cent of the RPAS population in Canada in 2018, combined with the deep deficit of knowledge among recreational users, there’s every chance that majority of such conflicts involved the latter.

Earlier this year, in the first reported judgment on drones in Canada, the Provincial Court of Alberta found a recreational user guilty of flying his drone “in a manner hazardous or likely hazardous to aviation safety” under the CARs in force then (the charging provision has been amended since). His offence: flying a drone near the Calgary International Airport.

Drones are fascinating machines, both in terms of technology and possibilities. Users who know that also need to know and obey the law.