The proliferation of drones has been a boon to several industries, but it’s also raising serious safety concerns
Noam Kenig is demonstrating aerodynamic advances he’s made to his company’s carbon-fibre quadcopter when Sky Is the Limit, his sandy-coloured puppy, starts nibbling on another machine’s rotor. “Hey, don’t eat that, it’s expensive,” he admonishes gently.
Kenig owns and runs AerialX Drone Solution Inc., an East Vancouver developer of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—commonly referred to as drones. The AerialX office is stacked with tools, electronics gear and small aircraft in various stages of assembly. Kenig and his staff of three are aiming to make machines that are lighter, fly farther and—most important—think smarter than anything that has come before. Currently they’re designing a custom drone for a large client that will rebrand it for sale to military and commercial end users. Users will be able to throw the drone in the air, where it will autopilot itself and scan the landscape with its cameras and sensors.
AerialX is pushing boundaries in an industry that is leaping forward technologically and in popularity. Commercial drone users in Canada must get permits from Transport Canada called Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOCs) to fly, and the number of SFOCs issued has rocketed from just 66 in 2010 to 1,672 in 2014. The changes are coming so fast that federal regulators are struggling to keep pace with appropriate rules and enforcement.
Drone operators are drawing flak for a growing number of mishaps. This summer, a rogue drone forced the grounding of firefighting planes and helicopters in the province’s Southern Interior. Pilots and airport officials report a series of near-misses with planes close to Vancouver International Airport. Transport Canada investigated just three drone-related incidents nationwide in 2012 but 39 in 2014; in B.C., those numbers went from one to seven over the same period.
AerialX is one of roughly 800 members of Unmanned Systems Canada (U.S.C.), an industry association pushing for more federal regulation—a position somewhat unusual for private industry. Kenig says both users and manufacturers need stricter guidance—and there needs to be enforcement. “Right now, a lot of companies are making their own autopilots and parts—it’s like the Wild West there.”
U.S.C. has been talking with Transport Canada about rule changes that would take effect sometime in 2016 and could include training and licensing requirements for operators, as well as registration of aircraft. Current rules (set in place in 1996 but modified significantly over the years) allow recreational users of drones lighter than 35 kilograms to fly without permits so long as they don’t breach Canadian Aviation Regulations (such as staying nine kilometres away from an airport). Commercial operators need to apply for SFOCs from Transport Canada for each mission, with restrictions made on a case-by-case basis. Organizations with safe flying records can get a certificate good for multiple missions.
Coldstream-based Valhalla Environmental Consulting Inc.
is one B.C. company that relies heavily on drone technology. It has been flying a SenseFly Swinglet Cam fixed-wing drone since 2012 to collect imagery and data for mining, agriculture and engineering projects. Valhalla partner and senior environmental scientist Matt Davidson says he was blown away when his drone supplier showed him what the machine could do. “We invested and figured out the regulatory side and the technological side as we went—which is not the way I would recommend doing it.”
Davidson says commercial operators need to be prepared for the impending regulatory changes before buying a drone because where, how and what you fly all affect where you fit under the rules. “We happen to have a very light plane, and we fly mostly in rural areas,” he says. “So we have fairly unrestricted use because we’re not near people, we’re not near airports, and our plane is relatively safe even if it bumps into something.”
Vancouver realtor Jordan Macnab, who uses a DJI Phantom quadcopter to shoot videos of high-end properties throughout the Lower Mainland, flies in tighter quarters. When his agency, the Macnabs, started flying a drone in 2012, the HD footage gained a lot of press—though it was tough sledding on the regulatory side. Macnab says Transport Canada was still sorting out what guidelines were needed in an urban environment, and SFOCs would take weeks to get issued, costing him business from some clients.
Nowadays Macnab has a blanket SFOC, and he knows where he can fly and where he should stick to more conventional camera work. “You can’t fly drones everywhere,” he says. “So it’s been good for business, but to be honest, we can’t use it on every one of our listings.”