We have written in the past about the challenges the Canadian UAV industry faces, one of which is the lack of consistency with how the various Transport Canada Regions handle the SFOC process and associated management of UAVs in general.
While Transport Canada is a national agency, the reality is the day to day operations are handled at regional levels and there has been a growing disconnect between how each region operates when it comes to UAVs.
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 even in the same location.
There also seem to be evolving approaches within the regions despite the fact the actual SFOC process and UAV regulations have been static for well over a year and a half. What was accepted only a few months ago is now being rejected or tighter restrictions are being put on new applications.
For operators trying to run UAV businesses across multiple regions of the country this can be a frustrating and confusing issue. It also can cause confusion with clients in that what might be permissible in one area is not allowed in another.
The differences in what a “typical” SFOC holds is most apparent when looking at PNR compared to other regions of the country. PNR tends to limit max altitude to 100′ within built-up areas and near aerodromes, most other regions allow up to 400′ as the default. As well PNR also requires a 500′ lateral distance in some areas where most others are 100′.
The 100′ distance is not always the case either, larger UAVs maybe be forced to greater distances, and there have been cases of some operators successfully being granted reduced distances of 30-50′, yet in some areas inspectors have stated they would never allow less than 100′, so again it is unclear as to what may be permitted or what the expectations and requirements are for these reductions; a lot seems to come down to luck of the draw in terms of what inspector you get reviewing your application. Considering the new FAA rules in the US, which does not require any lateral min distance, both of these are very limiting for Canadian operators.
Quebec is another region with some major differences. This seems to be the most restrictive region and also most difficult to get applications approved. There are many reports of not being able to get Standing SFOCs for anything beyond Class G airspace where other areas will typically grant longer term certificates for controlled and uncontrolled airspace operations.
Recently we have assisted a number of clients in the Pacific Region with SFOCs, in each case Transport Canada came back requesting additional but different information on applications very similar to ones approved there months earlier and that are approved without question in most other regions. The feedback was that some inspectors felt SFOCs had been granted too easily so they were deciding to make it tougher based on their own views of the process.
These issues extend further to agencies such as Nav Canada as well. Each region seems to be developing their own processes for how UAVs should coordinate with ATC and when and if a NOTAM should be issued. We have gone back and forth on this issue ourselves, having been told a NOTAM was required, then not required, then had to be issued by Transport Canada directly, and back to Transport Canada stating they didn’t feel they were necessary. Similar issues were also brought up around the requirement for and use of a VHF radio, some areas require them in certain airspace and other areas have stated they are never to be used.
And then there is the issue of enforcement or lack there of. Very few fines have been issued to date compared to the number of drones being operated on a daily basis. Many “cowboy” operators simply ignore the rules as they know Transport Canada has little manpower to police the use and with the current free for all for recreational use it is near impossible to make a fine stick in most cases. Again some regions such as Pacific and Quebec seem to issue more fines than others like PNR and Atlantic, coming down once again to what specific inspectors feel may be in or outside the box.
Running any business is tough enough when it comes to dealing with government red tape, but when there is no consistency or moving goal posts it makes the process even harder if not impossible. As a federal agency Transport Canada needs to address these issues and ensure there is a fair and consistent application of the UAV regulations coast to coast.
We can appreciate the disruptive nature of UAVs and the added workload that they have put on the aviation regulators and managers. The guys in the field are under a lot of pressure and are not given the resources to do their job and are doing the best they can and more often than not are always willing to help. We’ve even been told off the record how frustrated many are but their hands are tied with what they can actually do. The issue is at the top with the Minister and other bureaucrats.
These issue with these inconsistencies have been raised directly to Transport Canada and they are aware they exist and are a problem but to date there has been no movement on resolving the issue and in fact it seems to be getting worse.
At this stage all we can do as an industry is hope things improve and keep pushing for change. Write the Minister and your MP and make your concerns known.