BVLOS in Canada
Beyond Visual Line of Sight or BVLOS (Be-Ve-Loss) as is commonly referred to in the industry, is arguably the holy grail of approvals. To sum it up, BVLOS will do to the drone industry what wireless high-speed did to the internet. Regardless of the analogy you choose to use, one thing is clear; it WILL have a massive effect on the global economy. To date, there has been a struggle among innovators, operators, distributors and more importantly regulators to come to grips with what BVLOS means and how it should be governed. So, let’s look at the first part of the equation.
What does BVLOS mean: I’ll put on my ‘Captain Obvious’ hat for a moment and say it means you the pilot can’t see the drone anymore while it is in flight. Taking my hat off now, it means you are piloting a drone (I still hate that word but my SEO guys say I must use it) past the pilot’s visual observation limit, into airspace and possibly weather you can not see or identify easily, over or around hazards both airborne and at ground level and with a higher degree of overall risk. There are those that call it ridiculous that I would view something like long range flying at a few hundred feet above the ground with a drone weighing only a few pounds as high risk but I’m comforted by the notion that I’m not alone in my thinking. Many OEMs, operators, and virtually all regulators think as I do BUT it would seem that only OEMs and commercial operators are willing to push the envelope (in a positive way) with respect to flight safety and airworthiness standard practices while the regulators it seems wish the whole concept of BVLOS would quietly go away. Now it isn’t fair for me to bundle the various regulatory bodies of the world into a single basket because some of them have it figured out and have been approving these types of operations for quite some time now but why shouldn’t I throw them all together? After all, at least as far as Canada is concerned that is exactly what it feels those at Transport Canada have done to us (commercial operators); painted us with the same brush as the recreational crowd, rogue-nation and everyone in between. I won’t get into how easy a target we seem to have made ourselves but suffice to say, our choice to be open and transparent, above board, legal and hyper-safety-conscious drone operator hasn’t seemed to help our cause. In reality, our decision to conduct safe and legal flight operations in accordance with the Canadian Aviation Regulations has allowed the fly by night trunk slammer and recreational user to do what we have formally requested (and been denied by the way, which we’ll get to shortly) while we sit and wait for the laws to catch up in 2018-ish and business opportunities fly by. Pun intended.
Before I get to the part about what we asked for and what the response was (spoiler alert: this isn’t a blog announcing a BVLOS approval) lets finish point two; how it should be governed. Like I alluded to earlier, there are probably as many opinions on this point as there are types of drones you can buy today. In one camp, you have the recreational folks who globally speaking seem to think (and act if you watch the daily YouTube videos being published) that it’s really no big deal, people have been doing it for years and years and that many drones today are designed and openly marketed as having long-range flight capabilities at their core (i.e. DJI Mavic Pro – 7km flight range or SkySense Ebee – 40 km2). Today’s drones are not being designed to fly on a short leash in a park somewhere but rather the polar opposite. I would be willing to bet there have been as many successful BVLOS flights conducted as there have been VLOS ones. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those flights were not conducted under the watchful eye of a federal regulator, in a flight test authorized zone with restricted airspace and multiple engineers and systems specialists available to conduct a post-mission analysis to determine what went right and what went wrong. Don’t laugh… it’s true. A little tongue-in-cheek perhaps but very true. Flip over to another camp now, us commercial folks. I like to think that we all believe in flight safety as the number one priority that governs EVERYTHING else we do, followed by the use of industry best practices and quality standards. Moreover, that same collective ‘we’ want to conduct our non-recreational flights legally and in step with the regulatory growth that governs how we must fly. The only issue with that statement, however, is the growth. It is my opinion that we are in something of a regulatory recession. There, I said it. The industry seems to have outpaced our government’s ability to grow with it and we are now at a point where a small group of government officials has chosen to pull the reigns tight in an attempt to slow things down to a speed at which they are more comfortable moving. Maybe it’s because I’m still on a plane as write this, coming home from the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas but I don’t like those odds.
And now for the part you’ve been waiting for. What happened with our BVLOS application? Great question, I’m glad you asked! Some of you may have seen the article in the Chronical Herald where we disclosed our intent to move forward with BVLOS operations beginning in rural Nova Scotia, to begin with, and that we anticipated a response within 30-60 days after review by both the Transport Canada regional office and headquarters in Ottawa. It was flat out rejected within days of being reviewed by TCHQ. In fact, not only was it rejected but a conference call was arranged almost immediately with 4 or 5 representatives at TC and ourselves to hear why it was rejected, which we appreciated. No one likes a form letter or one line email rejection anyways. The conference call lasted about 1 hour where the first 15 minutes was used to reiterate that not only where we denied but that the industry isn’t ready for BVLOS and neither is Transport Canada. I believe there was mention by one individual that there are so many issues with people not knowing and/or not caring to follow the VLOS rules that BVLOS was simply out of the question for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it was confirmed that TCHQ has never issued an approval for a commercial BVLOS flight in Canada apart from a flight test or two where a chase plane was used. About halfway through the call, we decided it was about time we cleared the air on who we are, how we operate and that we didn’t just walk into aviation a week ago when we bought a drone on sale at Best Buy (which we didn’t!). Within our team, we have over 40 years of direct civil and military aviation experience ranging from commercially trained pilot to aircraft maintenance engineering to flight test engineering and air traffic control. That’s something we are very proud of and experience we draw on every single day. They are skills that have allowed us to write all of our own internal manuals such as Business Operations, Flight Operations, Maintenance Control and Policies as well as Environmental, Health, and Safety. These documents and others we have developed have even gone so far as to form the foundation of our ISO 9001:2015 setup. Our communications protocols, flight safety standards, human factors in aviation training, certifying maintenance and release authority on commercial aircraft, direct experience working within the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) and the Technical Airworthiness Manual (TAM – military version of the CARs) isn’t enough to support our BVLOS approval. No, we seem to fall firmly into the basket beside the kid with a phantom publishing videos of illegal flights over and through downtown _______________(insert your city name here). And let’s not forget the guys that like to fly alongside the approach path of a runway. Towards the end of the call, the flavor of the discussion took a turn for the better when TCHQ laid out a plan and their list of required changes to our BVLOS – SFOC application that would let us conduct an ELOS (Extended Line of Sight) as a first-time sanctioned flight. That sounds great, right? Yes, it does. The ELOS flight would need to be conducted in a safe location, well away from a built-up area and airports/heliports, at a limited altitude and we had to be able to see the airspace and identify weather at the other end of the flight line. No sweat. We can work with that!
Our new ELOS-SFOC application was submitted a few days later after careful consideration of the plan proposed by TCHQ. Any notion of it being BVLOS was removed, the flight path placed over a wooded area, limited to 200 feet above ground, shortened to 2km in a straight line where we would launch and recover from higher ground to ensure airspace visibility. A NOTAM would be filed and takeoff and recovery advisories broadcast on standard VHF aviation frequencies for that area. The weather would be clear and visible (VFR flight rules) with little to no wind and the flight would occur in 7 minutes, start to finish.
The response took a few weeks to get back and was a complete 180 from what was offered by TCHQ and planned by us. Honestly, we were very surprised at having been denied again. I’ll summarize the points exactly as they were laid out we received. More to the point, it summarizes Transport Canadas ELOS/BVLOS approval requirements.
- While the advisory material for BVLOS operations is still under development, it is Transport Canada’s policy that certain conditions will need to be met by UAV Operators in order to proceed with ELOS/BVLOS operations.
- The department is going to require UAV operators wishing to conduct these types of operations to first be compliant operators.
- Once that requirement is satisfied, then an SFOC would be required that is tailored for a single ELOS mission.
- It would need to include a detailed risk assessment (versus a risk summary) and, as previously mentioned, it would need to be detailed enough to allow the Inspector to assess the location and associated risks e.g. assessment of the airspace (as outlined on aeronautical charts) – class of airspace, surrounding airspace (laterally and above the proposed area), name and location of aerodromes in proximity to the operation, location of built-up areas in proximity to the proposed operation.
- Strategies to mitigate the associated risks under normal operating conditions and under emergency situations, such as lost command and control or a fly-away would need to be provided.
- You would also need to include your findings on what known aircraft operate in the area and what contact has been made with those operators.
- The way ahead for BVLOS operations will include a need for UAV operators to conduct modeling and simulation tests and/or conduct BVLOS testing and evaluation under an SFOC at the UAV “test ranges” (e.g. restricted airspace) being developed at Foremost, AB, and Alma, QC. In other words, the UAV operator will need to have demonstrated their sense and avoid capability at one of the test sites before being considered for a BVLOS commercial operations.
To say this was not what was discussed and laid out during the conference call would be an understatement. Furthermore, and to put it quite frankly, the only thing we haven’t done in our attempt to become ready for compliance is buy yet another drone with an extremely high price tag (relative to the rest of the sUAV market). I’m going to save that for the next write-up but I have some fundamental issues with the definition of compliant, what constitutes a “compliant UAV” and the notion that our company would need to purchase flight test time at a facility in Alberta or Quebec to demonstrate a 2km flight with a small multi-rotor. Maybe it will come down to that in the end but when our neighbors to the south are actively applying for their BVLOS waivers which are currently under review by the FAA and Transport Canada has yet to standardize the SFOC application process let alone set reasonable guidelines for BVLOS operations for us legitimate commercial businesses, it causes me to lose a bit of sleep at night. I will only speak from our small perch in the industry that we are a company (a corporation actually) with full-time staff and an astronomical amount of time spent developing the business model and our client base only to see a future beginning to form that smells an awful lot like lost business and a drastically reduced competitive edge. The decision to flip-flop on the rules of BVLOS approval and apparent unwillingness to talk to small business operators across the country (and I’m not alone in that thinking either) while allowing special interest groups and OEMs to dictate the direction our industry should go is as disheartening as it is discouraging on both a personal level and looking at what the Canadian economy stands to gain from this industry and the offshoot developments that come with it. This technology and what it produces is so disruptive that if we (Canada) continue to drag our feet and let things happen at their usual slow pace in government, a significant number of small businesses will need to shut down. If Transport Canada is resource-stretched, I call upon the Minister of Transportation to open the purse a bit more. If we have known about the problems associated with 5 regions interpreting rules differently and creating various SFOC word documents, spreadsheets and email templates for people to fill out, for years now, none of which are consistent across the country but rather serve to aid a few individual inspectors, why only now is Transport Canada choosing to look into it and take yet another year to create a simple, standard process? I would invite the Minister to take a few extra moments to ponder the repercussions of stifling the industry and not finding constructive and timely ways to meet the needs of small, drone-based business. I am personally very concerned at what will happen when we mix the lack of timely regulatory development with little to no enforcement and an industry that is producing some extremely automated and soon to come, autonomous technology. That is a corner I do not wish to see our industry backed into nor should it come it to that.
I’ll end this off with the statement released by The Honourable Marc Garneau, Minister of Transportation during his speech regarding Transportation 2030:
“My department is also working to ensure that drones – or unmanned air vehicles – are subject to simple, clear and enforceable regulations. UAVs are contributing to advances in scientific research, exploration and rescue operations. The role of government here is to enable innovation in the use of UAVs while ensuring they fly safely”