As 2016 rolls along and summer quickly approaches, we have been looking back over the last year and ahead to 2017 for a sense of where the commercial UAV industry is in Canada, particularly as it relates to small/medium aerial service providers.
The following are some of the key/critical issues we see that the industry faces.
- New regulations that were released to NPA over a year ago by Transport Canada are still in limbo. The latest word seems to be a mid to late 2017 implementation time-frame. This leaves the industry with a lot of unknowns going forward in regards to how operations will be regulated and what the requirements will be to remain in business.
- Without the new regulations the current gap in the regulations between recreational and commercial use is a major concern. The lack of almost any recreational regulations leads to concerns not only with safety of the airspace but also the loophole it provides for operators flying “for fun” and then later using the imagery for commercial purposes in the guise of “passion projects”.
- The differences in commercial vs recreational use is also further confused by misinformation coming from media and even Transport Canada. Many of the guidelines are being stated as if they were laws making the situation even muddier for those involved. Commercial operators are sometimes accused of flying illegally as less informed individuals assume the rules are the same for all use, when in fact they vary greatly.
- Lack of consistency in the SFOC application process has been an issue since day one and one that is still present. Not all regions apply the Staff Instructions in the same manner, and even within the same region different inspectors can often interpret them differently. What may be allowed for one operator may be reject for another.
- This lack of consistency also exists in other areas as well, such as with the coordination of operations with Nav Canada and air traffic controllers. There are multiple agencies still getting up to speed on how to integrate drones into the national airspace, and this can vary greatly from location to location.
- Combined with loopholes in the regulations is the lack of enforcement for the regulations we do have. Many choose to ignore the SFOC requirements as they know the odds of getting caught are slim to none. This leads to further frustration of legal operators and makes for an unlevel playing field when trying to operate legally and within the SFOC restrictions with those that are not bound by any rules. Often times SFOC holders become the easier target of enforcement since it is easier to prove than it is with illegal operators not tied to the conditions of an SFOC.
- Exemptions continue to be a point of confusion within the industry; this was a misstep by Transport Canada in our opinion, one that has lead to ongoing confusion around when and if an SFOC is needed for commercial use. The reality is Exemptions rarely can be used due to all the conditions, but many try and operate under them without reading the fine details.
- The “accident waiting to happen” is the the back of the minds of many in the industry. Reports of near misses with manned aircraft make the news on a regular basis. The greatest fear is what the fallout will be when something serious does happen and we see knee jerk reactions from law makers. The holes in the current regulations and limited enforcement make this accident all the more possible.
- Many municipalities and other agencies such as federal and provincial parks are starting to create policies to deal with the growing number of drones being used on their property. The main concern for the industry is how these policies could end up grounding commercial operations even for legal insured operators. Often times the powers that be involved in the creation of these bylaws may not have a good background or understanding of the safe use of UAVs and the related federal regulations that manages their use.
- Professionalism within the industry is a growing concern. Currently there exists no official certification or licensing for UAV operators, merely the need to hold an SFOC which can be relatively easy to obtain even with little to no UAV or aviation experience. As such it is hard for potential clients looking for UAV services to determine who is a safe, skilled, and legal provider. The need to remove the “wild west” mentality that currently exists and form a professional association that can help manage the industry is a key element going forward. The industry needs to manage itself to be successful long term.
- With the mixed messages around drones and their uses comes potential issues when operators interface with clients. Often times client expectations are outside the realm of reality due to stories they have seen in the media. Also footage they may have seen from illegal or recreational flights can further confuse matters, where the client asks for something that cannot be legally done. A large part of a provider’s job becomes educating the customer on what is and isn’t possible.
- Drone technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace. This offers great opportunities for new application of the technology and reduced barriers of entry. No longer do operators need to be “drone techies”, systems now come ready to fly and offer many high end features out of the box such as automated mapping, HD video feeds, high quality camera systems. Much of the operation of the aircraft itself is being automated making hands on flight skills less of a hurdle. The systems have become commodities and tools, not technological marvels. The challenge for service providers is to remain current but also manage the ROI from systems and equipment and not be displaced from the industry by new entries.
The industry faces rapid growth in the months and years ahead. The challenge will be for regulators and operators to keep up and stay current and not be outpaced by new innovations and players in the market and strike a balance between managing safe use and allowing for innovation.