Drone operators are (almost) cleared for takeoff in urban centres again as Transport Canada proposes a new regulatory regime aiming to balance innovation with public safety and easy-to-follow rules with flexibility.

The new regulations – for which public comment is open until October 13 – adopt a risk-based approach to managing the use of unmanned aircraft systems based on the weight of the unmanned aircraft (UA), the operating environment, and the complexity of the operation.

Businesses currently using drone technology, and especially those in rural areas, will see increased predictability as ad hoc applications under the existing Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) regime are replaced with Canada-wide standards. However, more adventurous and demanding applications, for example those using UAs heavier than 25kg or operating beyond visual line of site, will still require a SFOC.

The current regulations

Transport Canada has identified three issues associated with the rapidly growing UA industry and its current regulations: (1) the overarching safety issue; (2) lack of regulatory predictability; and (3) a significant administrative burden borne out of the application for and granting of SFOCs.

Current regulations distinguish between recreational and commercial purposes in defining whether and to what extent the government will require registration with Transport Canada (for drones between 1 – 25kgs used for work or research) or the possession of an SFOC (work or research UAs weighing more than 25kgs or recreational UAs weighing more than 35kgs). All operators are currently required to follow rules applicable to the weight class and operation environment of their UA, as well as obeying criminal and nuisance laws and observing air safety rules.

Combined with strict limitations on the physical proximity of UAs to vehicles, vessels and the public, existing regulations effectively prohibit the operation of UAs in urban areas and impose an onerous certification scheme on both commercial operators and the government.

The proposed regulations hope to strike the right balance between supporting innovation and increased use of drones whilst ensuring public safety.

What’s being proposed?

The proposed regime uses a risk-based approach to managing pilots and operators by dividing UAs into five classes. The distinctions are based on weight and operating environment and decidedly eschew a commercial or recreational distinction of use on the grounds that the risks posed are identical in both scenarios.

As a regulatory foundation, all UAs heavier than 250g will have a minimum age requirement for operators (as low as 14 years old), as well as mandatory possession of liability insurance and the satisfactory completion of a basic knowledge test. All operators will be required to label their devices with contact information. Transport Canada’s infographic illustrates the gradual application of more onerous demands on operators as both weight and proximity to built-up areas increases.

The most significant distinction lies in the requirement that UAs in urban environments (complex operations) will require a pilot permit specific to small drones, as well as having to meet design standards yet to be confirmed. In contrast, the same UA piloted in rural areas (limited operations) will face significantly less demanding rules, requiring only that the operator be at least 16 years old and have passed a basic knowledge test. Each class must also adhere to minimum operating distances from certain people, events, buildings and air spaces, depending on the operating environment.

For commercial operators in rural areas especially, the new regime will ensure an even application of standards nation-wide whilst those seeking to operate in urban areas will have to display the requisite level of skill and knowledge to operate within built-up areas with increased risk of damage to people and property. The movement away from SFOCs is a win for all operators otherwise subject to the administrative burden and application costs.

For UAs heavier than 25kg or that are operated beyond visual line of site and any other use that cannot comply with the proposed regulatory provisions (think competitive racing), an SFOC is still required.

How the new regime will improve outcomes

Despite the new regulations coming with a $61 million price tag to government and private users, Transport Canada considers it a net benefit given the reduced risk of manned aircraft accidents. By instituting a minimum age to operate UAs over 250g and by further requiring the completion of knowledge tests and licensing requirements commensurate with the level of risk, operators will at least conform to a basic standard of knowledge and skill.

Businesses will benefit from greater certainty, a fairer application of standards country wide and increased operability within urban areas. However, they will face increased operating costs in obtaining insurance coverage and it remains to be seen just how exacting the design requirements will be for UAs operating in urban environments.