WATCH: Regulation, legality and safety of drones

Watch: Part 2 of Global BC series on drones

With drone technology becoming more advanced, concerns about safety and regulation are on the rise.

Transport Canada is the agency that regulates unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, in Canada.

The agency has had regulations in place to govern the use of UAVs since 1996, but the guidelines are ever-evolving.

As recently as last November, Transport Canada has eased restrictions for smaller UAVs.

The regulators have come up with a list of guidelines for people wanting to fly UAVs, which include requirements like not flying closer than 150 metres from people, animals, buildings, structures or vehicles, or closer than nine kilometers from any airport, heliport or aerodrome.

Aside from general precautions, some drone users are required to obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). The permit contains conditions specific to the proposed use, such as maximum altitudes and minimum distances from people and property.

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WATCH: Transport Canada regulations set a number of restrictions for drone users

Despite restrictions, there have been a number of incidents involving drones getting too close to other aircraft.

Last July, RCMP and Transport Canada launched a joint investigation into a near-miss between a drone and an aircraft taking off from the Vancouver International Airport.

“We want to get the message out there that operating a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle anywhere near an airport is incredibly dangerous,” says Alisa Gloag with YVR. “A Special Flight Operations Certificate, issued by Transport Canada, is required to fly a drone and these are not issued to fly anywhere near YVR. We ask that people use their common sense and ensure they use technology safely.”

Roger Van Dolder, airport operations manager with Langley Regional Airport, told Global News UAVs and the associated hazards they pose to the airport environment are being dealt with in much the same manner as laser incidents have been over the past few years.

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In the unlikely event that airport management is notified of a unidentified / unauthorised UAV operating within the Langley control zone, every attempt will be made to contact the operator and inform them of their obligations, liabilities and regulatory requirements when flying within the airport control zone. If unable to locate the operator of a UAV or suspicious activity is suspected, airport management will inform NAV Canada and contact the RCMP and Transport Canada immediately for further investigation.

To date there have been no occurrences of unauthorised UAV flights or incidents at the Langley Regional Airport.

In 2012, Transport Canada issued 353 SFOCs. That number almost tripled by 2014 at 1,020.

Courtesy: Transport Canada

Since 2010, Transport Canada has launched 50 investigations into drone incidents across the country.

Courtesy: Transport Canada

The number of investigations into incidents involving drones went up from just three in 2012 to 39 in 2014.

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B.C. saw a jump from just one investigation in 2012 to seven in 2014.

If Transport Canada receives a report of an incident, one of our inspectors will verify that the operator followed all applicable rules and used the UAV safely, says communications adviser Ben Stanford. Local police may also verify if other laws were broken, including the Criminal Code and privacy laws. If Transport Canada finds operators aren’t aware of the rules, we will educate them about the risks and their responsibilities, and take appropriate enforcement action, which can include issuing fines.

Canada versus USA

Even though a number of strict restrictions on UAVs are in place, Canada’s approach could not be more different from that taken by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just across the border.

Journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Drone Journalism Lab Matt Waite says unlike in Canada, FAA effectively bans all commercial drone use, with a few exemptions for filmmakers and news organizations.

“You can’t use a drone for a commercial purpose in the US without explicit permission from the Federal Aviation Administration,” says Waite. “That permission is exceedingly difficult to get.”

Waite says the process is really onerous and the requirements are substantial. “They require a private pilot’s licence to fly three pounds of plastic. There are very few companies that are able to do that. Widespread use is non-existent.”

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WATCH: How different are unmanned aerial vehicle regulations in the United States versus Canada? Founder of Journalism Drone Lab Matt Waite explains

He says Canada has taken the approach of allowing for certain uses with minimal to no regulatory intervention. “What Canada has done is opened the door to a significant amount of experimentation and innovation with what I believe will ultimately be minimal risk to people,” says Waite.

Drone entrepreneurs here in B.C. say it is a huge opportunity for Canada.

“The FAA has dragged their feet when it comes down to regulation,” says Paul Baur, a local entrepreneur who runs Kaizen Kinetics, a company offering a multitude of drone related services. “It can only benefit us. It puts a spotlight on Canada.”

Baur says more and more companies from overseas are coming to Canada because of more lenient regulations.

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“It is really pushing the innovation side of things now that they can do testing and actually deploy out on the field,” he says.

The legality of drones

Drones are regulated under the Canadian aviation regulations, which are attached to the Aeronautics Act.

“What’s relied upon right now is the section of the aviation regulations that was originally drafted for model aircraft,” says aviation lawyer Lee Mauro. “There is a working group within Transport Canada that’s trying to develop better and more precise regulations to do with drones, but we are not there yet.”

Mauro says if a drone causes property damage or personal injury, the operator may be liable civilly or face criminal charges.

WATCH: Aviation lawyer Lee Mauro talks about how Canadian law treats incidents involving drones

Depending on whether aviation regulations were also followed, the operator may also be fined by Transport Canada.

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Transport Canada: “If an operator flies a UAV without a SFOC and should have one, Transport Canada can issue fines up to $5,000 for an individual and $25,000 for a business. If an operator does not follow the requirements of their SFOC, Transport Canada can issue fines of up to $3,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a business.”

On the local level, Vancouver police say they have not made any arrests related to the flying of drones to date.

“There is no provincial ticket or municipal by-law that could be issued for flying a drone,” Vancouver police spokesperson Brian Montague told Global News. “We would respond to any complaint about drones flown in a manner that causes concern for public safety or violates the criminal code.”

Mauro says even though regulations set out that you need to be nine kilometers from an airport, aerodrome or built-up area, there are very few areas near or around cities that are not at least within that distance of any one of those things.

“There are approximately 300 airports and aerodromes in B.C. and not everybody knows where those are,” he says.

For Mauro, the real issue is going to be finding out who owns the drone.

“Just because a drone hits you, it does not mean you are going to know who was operating that drone,” he says. “Drones do not have identifying characteristics to them, and unless you actually see the person operating the drone, you may not know who they are and where they are.”


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