Drone industry balks at government red tape
Transport Canada is dragging its heels with excessive red tape and costing the country’s drone surveillance and mapping industry big bucks in lost revenues, say industry insiders.
“We’re getting behind the eight ball,” Mark Aruja, chairman of the Canadian drone industry organization Unmanned Systems Canada, said in an interview Tuesday. “People’s money is tied up in this and so are their business plans.”
Until about 18 months ago, Canada was considered to be a leader in the international drone surveillance and mapping community, with a framework for flying these unmanned aircraft short distances.
But then, the industry shifted.
In the United States, commercial drone company Precisionhawk got the nod from the Federal Aviation Administration in July to fly commercial drones farther, beyond the operator’s line of sight.
With that approval, a commercial drone operator can more cost-effectively and efficiently do such things as survey pipelines, transmission line corridors, farm operations and map coastlines.
It’s widely touted in the industry as the next step for commercial drone operators looking to land big contracts.
“The Holy Grail is beyond-line-of-sight approval,” said Aruja. “That’s where the opportunities are.”
It’s also something that’s allowed in France and Australia and is now starting to be approved in the United States. But in Canada, federal regulators aren’t quite there yet.
Transport Canada spokesman Daniel Savoie said Tuesday that his government department evaluates each application to fly a drone beyond visual line of sight on a case-by-case basis.
“To obtain a special flight operations certificate to carry out unmanned aerial vehicle activities beyond visual line of sight, an operator would have to demonstrate their ability to mitigate the heightened risk to people on the ground and to other aircraft,” said Savoie.
“Transport Canada considers many factors when authorizing beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations, including collision risk, the applicant’s proposed means to mitigate that risk, specific weather requirements, the accuracy and reliability of the navigation system, etc.,” he said.
Beechville-based drone surveillance and mapping company AeroVision Canada’s chief executive officer Trevor Bergmann says the process is riddled with “an obscene amount of rules and regulations.”
Earlier this year, AeroVision Canada applied to Transport Canada for permission to fly beyond the operator’s line of sight. Bergmann hoped it would open the door to opportunities worth millions of dollars in revenues for the start-up.
But Transport Canada quickly shot that dream down. And Bergmann is now looking outside of Canada to grow his company.
“Our company could easily be a $10-million company (in terms of annual revenues) with beyond-visual-line-of-sight approval,” he said. “Without it, I don’t see it happening . . . I’m sick and tired of having to turn business away.”
AeroVision Canada, which had been planning to grow in Canada, is now instead going to put its energies on business development elsewhere.
“I’m going to focus on moving our operations outside of the country . . . to do what we’ve done before but outside of Canada,” said Bergmann.
Earlier this month, Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau gave the nod to the Village of Foremost in Alberta to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle test site. The Foremost facilitywill conduct research and development, and provide the UAV industry with restricted airspace to test beyond-visual-line-of-sight technology and operations.
The transport minister is also expected to soon make a similar announcement for a drone test site in Alma, Que.
But industry insiders say Transport Canada is wasting time re-inventing the wheel when it could be moving ahead with the data from beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights in other jurisdictions.
“It’s quite detrimental to the Canadian industry to not be able to do operations that other regulators have deemed to be safe,” Diana Cooper, vice-president of legal and policy affairs at Precisionhawk, said in an interview.
“The risk-averse reaction of Transport Canada is not warranted,” she said.
She suggested Transport Canada should accept the data from other places, such as Australia, France and the United States, where beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights with drones have been safely conducted, in some cases for years.
In 18 months of doing such test flights, Precisionhawk, which has operations in both Canada and the U.S., did not have a single accident or crash with any of its drones, said Cooper.
Precisionhawk and AeroVision Canada both use the DJI S1000 drones.
And it’s frustrating for Canadian drone operators to see their American counterparts get ahead in an internationally-competitive industry with the same equipment, due to a different regulatory framework.
“When our neighbours to the south are actively applying for their beyond-visual-line-of-sight waivers, which are currently under review by the FAA, and Transport Canada has yet to standardize the special flight operations certificate application process let alone set reasonable guidelines for beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations for us legitimate commercial businesses, it causes me to lose a bit of sleep at night,” wrote Bergmann in a blog post.
AeroVision Canada’s team has more than 40 years of civil and military aviation experience, and has produced manuals on flight and business operations, maintenance control and developed environmental health and safety policies. The company is in the process of getting ISO 9001 certified.
Bergmann said that should count for something but Transport Canada seems to be lumping his company in with recreational drone users.
Transport Canada isn’t alone in its struggle to keep up with commercial drone technology and the private sector’s use of it.
In May this year, Pricewaterhouse Cooper published a report, written by Michal Mazur, a partner in Drone Powered Solutions, and Adam Wiśniewski, a director of that same team of consultants, on the industry. It wascalled Clarity From Above — PwC Global Report on the Commercial Applications of Drone Technology.
“National and international legislators are struggling to keep pace with advances in UAV technology,” state the report’s authors. “Drone regulations have changed in recent years from being treated as a niche hobby, to becoming part of regular aviation operations, to a point where national authorities have started developing special regulatory frameworks to address the most urgent issues.”
According to Drone Powered Solutions, the international leader in commercial drone regulations is currently Poland.
“The first country to implement all necessary sets of regulations was Poland in 2013. Thanks to the combined efforts of the civilian aviation authorities, the UAV community and insurance companies, Poland allows commercial drone operations both (visual-line-of-sight and beyond-visual-line-of-sight) in a secure and user-friendly way,” reads the report.
The PwC report estimates the global market for drone-powered solutions, which includes both software and the physical drones themselves and related services, to be more than $127 billion.
In Canada, Bergmann warns that further delays by federal regulators in approving beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone operations could have dire consequences for the industry and its competitiveness internationally.
“This technology and what it produces is so disruptive that if Canada continues to drag its feet and let things happen at their usual slow pace in government, a significant number of small businesses will need to shut down,” he said.
Full article – http://thechronicleherald.ca/business/1413690-drone-industry-balks-at-government-red-tape