Use & Abuse of Terminology in the Canadian UAV Industry

As the UAV industry grows in Canada there are many new companies getting involved in various aspects from manufacturing, training, consulting, and providing aerial services.  As part of this growth is the marketing aspect as new companies push to find clients and expand their exposure in the industry.  It is the wild west and everyone is putting out a shingle in hopes of getting noticed.

With most marketing campaigns companies are looking to set themselves apart from the competition and show their unique offerings. With that can come “marketing spin” when things are pushed to their limits in terms of meaning. Often there is a fine line in the use of certain terminology which can imply something that may not always be the case, especially in the context of how the terms are defined and used by Transport Canada, with companies trying to highlight their services or make their offering stand out from the competition. Care must be taken in how these terms are used and interpreted when trying to decide between companies offering similar drone services.

The way that UAV service providers operate legally in Canada is via what is called an “SFOC” or “Special Flight Operations Certificate”. Operators apply to Transport Canada for an SFOC that allows them to conduct commercial UAV flights, typically for a defined geographic region and within a certain set of flight parameters.  As part of the application process the operator defines their operating and safety procedures as well as processes for managing their crews, aircraft, etc. Transport Cnaada reviews the request and procedures and if they feel it will provide for safe flight operations then a SFOC is granted. Each SFOC is unique so the specific details can vary from operator to operator in regards to when and where they can fly, such as in controlled airspace, at night, maximum altitudes, etc; not all SFOCs are equal so having one in and of itself does not grant the holder to a free for all of drone use, limitations and restriction exist even with an SFOC.

For training there are no current Transport Canada approved/licensed/certified UAV providers.  Transport Canada has defined a set of “knowledge requirements” on which most providers base their curriculum, but they do not certify the courses or trainers. However, organizations offering training that meets the knowledge requirements will be expected to provide Transport Canada with a written self declaration attesting to the compliance of their courseware and testing. Thereafter, SFOC applicants with pilots who have successfully completed such a compliant course will be able to reference that course and ground school provider in their SFOC application as proof of pilot knowledge.

There are also no official exams at this stage (this may be part of the new regulations coming in late 2016/early 2017).  Training currently can be provided by any company looking to do so, from established manned aviation training centers, to new UAV specific startups, as well as online self study, and in house training.


UAV SFOC Myths: SFOC process is too complicated, so I won’t bother with one

Myths and Facts opposition written on whiteboardUAV SFOC Myth: SFOC process is too complicated, so I won’t bother with one.

This is one we hear all too often.  People take a quick look at the rules involved with commercial UAV operation and then quickly give up saying its too complex, takes too long, system doesn’t work, etc…

It is perhaps the result of many coming into the UAV industry having no previous business experience, or lack of insight to the regulatory side that exists in most all industries. Many people make a decision to jump into a drone business hoping to make their hobby into a money making activity overnight with little to no time or investment. The realities of the world however are much different than the “get rich quick with a drone” dreams of the naive.

As we wrote about in The Regulation Game…, regulations have existed since ancient times so they are nothing new to just UAVs. Like them or not they exist and you need to work with them for better or worse until things can change, and change with anything government related comes at a slow pace.

Ignorance of the rules that govern an industry are not an excuse that will hold up when the enforcement officers show up.  You can’t open a restaurant without proper certificates and licenses, and much the same holds true in the UAV industry.  All businesses have regulations they have to work within, be they good, bad, or indifferent.

One of our favorite complaints is “the system is too slow and doesn’t work”, which most times comes from people that have never even filed an SFOC.  They hear from various forums or third hand comments how tough it is, quickly scan the regulations themselves, and then determine the system is broke, without ever even made an attempt to file.  We will be first to state that the SFOC process is not perfect, it can be confusing, frustrating, and slow, however it does work.  There are many operators getting SFOC, including long term standing SFOCs.

The reality is if you are serious about a UAV business, or any business, then the time it takes to read and understand the regulations is time well spent and will help you develop a solid framework and allow you to work legally. It wont happen overnight but it is doable, you just need to give it the time it demands.

UAV SFOC Myths: I’ll attach a tether and then I don’t need an SFOC

Myths and Facts opposition written on whiteboardUAV SFOC Myth: I’ll attach a tether and then I don’t need an SFOC.

There have been various debates and discussions around ways to circumvent the UAV regulations, one of which is to attach a small line or tether attached to the ground to basically make it not a UAV by definition.  There have even been products sold and marketed to this potential loophole in the US (although the product appears to have since been pulled).

The reality however is this loophole has been closed by Transport Canada.  The latest regulations make specific reference to this:

6.17 Tethered UAVs
(1) Generally, aircraft that do not carry persons (e.g. small balloons/airships and kites) that are connected to the ground by way of a tether, operated as antennas, surveillance aircraft, sampling devices etc. are treated as obstacles to air navigation and are to be marked and lit in accordance with the obstruction marking and lighting standards found in section 621.19 of the CARs. However, since the Minister is responsible for protecting persons and property on the ground and other airspace users, tethered UAVs that are extremely manoeuvrable and which operate over wide vertical/horizontal areas may require an SFOC. In these cases, protecting other airspace users by marking, lighting and issuing a NOTAM may not be sufficient and/or may not address very low level operations in built-up areas.
(2) The type of regulations that apply to tethered UAVs depends on what type of UAV is being considered and the purpose of the aerial work. However, operating an aircraft on a tether simply to avoid SFOC requirements is not a viable solution.

While it is still not spelled out in clear black and white catchall terms, it is stated that tethering is not acceptable if it is merely used to avoid an SFOC.

At the end of the day a lot of it comes down to common sense.  If something is being used merely to circumvent a law then it more than likely isn’t the best approach to business.

UAV SFOC Myths: I won’t charge for the aerials only editing to avoid the regulations

Myths and Facts opposition written on whiteboardUAV SFOC Myth: I won’t charge for the aerials only editing to avoid the regulations.

One way that many try to work around the need for an SFOC, and thus avoid the associated regulations, is to not charge for the aerial work but instead charge the client for editing or other indirect services.  This loophole however is closed. An operation is still considered “commercial” even when there is no direct payment for the aerial services themselves.

The Aeronautics Act defines hire and reward as

(a) “any payment, consideration, gratuity or benefit, directly or indirectly charged, demanded, received or collected by any person for the use of an aircraft”.

This also includes use on your own property, so a farmer inspecting his fields or animals, management company using it on site of their own building, real estate agents on listings they manage all are considered commercial use. Even search & rescue and volunteer/charity work falls into this category. Again if its not purely for fun then it is seen as commercial and thus requires an SFOC or Exemption.

UAV SFOC Myths: The odds of getting caught are low so I’ll work with no SFOC.

Myths and Facts opposition written on whiteboardMyth: The odds of getting caught are low so I’ll work with no SFOC.

While it is true that enforcement of the current Canadian UAV regulations have been lacking, there have been multiple known cases of fines being issued to operators that did work without an SFOC in the past year, such as the one in Montreal in Dec 2014.  And from what we have heard through the grapevine enforcement is being stepped up and requests for more enforcement officers have been made by TC to take on this new workload.

And while TC may have a limited number of enforcement officers, the industry will self regulate with operators reporting those they see in violation via Civil Aviation Issues Reporting System (CAIRS).  See our article Reporting UAV Issues in Canada – CAIRS for more details. (We ourselves were report a year ago while on a shoot that was under an SFOC and NOTAM, TC contacted us to followup and noted it was a competitor that had filed the complaint.  Nothing came of it as we were in full compliance.)  Self policing will be a large part of things going forward in our view, and is actually for the good of the industry long term, ensuring things are done safely and everyone is aware and in line with the laws.

As we see the industry grow we will also no doubt see an increase in complaints filed by the general public as well, many will no doubt be unfounded, but there will be those that are valid and lead to investigation by TC.

Operating outside the regulations also puts you personally liable in the event of an accident.  Insurance will be voided if it was deemed the activity was done outside the laws, which requires an SFOC or Exemption.  This more than fear of a fine should be the reasoning for operators to work within the system and not open themselves up to added risk.

If your planning to build a long term viable business in the UAV industry then the only logical safe means to do so is by following the regulations and playing by the book.  Anything less makes you liable and open to fines as well as establishing a less than professional business reputation. While the Red Tape may be frustrating, it is all part of working in this industry, and the system does work if you put in the time and effort.

UAV SFOC Myths: My drone is under 2kgs so I don’t need an SFOC.

Myths and Facts opposition written on whiteboardMyths: My drone is under 2kgs so I don’t need an SFOC.

While there are exemption in Canada for commercial use of UAVs that are under 2kgs, as well as ones between 2-25kgs, the weight alone is not the only condition that must be met.

The main item that most overlook and that restricts the widespread use of the exemptions is the 5NM (9KM) restrictions from airports and built-up areas.  The confusion comes from what a “built-up area” is as TC has not defined in clearly, however it is generally referred to mean the following:

areas with groups of buildings or dwellings including anything from small hamlets to major cities. Anything larger than a farmstead should be considered a built up area

The operator is responsible for makig nsure they meet all the condition of any exemption or SFOC they use, so you need to fully understand ALL the regulations, and not cherry pick the ones that appear to fit your needs.

See our article  UAV SFOC Exemptions “For Dummies” for further information.