Preparing to Share the Skies
March 5, 2014 By Paul Dixon
Coming soon to a sky near you – drones! There is no shortage of hyperbole, distortion and misunderstanding in public perception of the current and future state of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Canada.
Coming soon to a sky near you – drones! There is no shortage of hyperbole, distortion and misunderstanding in public perception of the current and future state of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Canada. The public has become aware of “drones” after more than a decade of nightly news reports on their use in a variety of military roles in conflicts around the globe.
|Amazon’s PrimeAir delivery systems – 30 minutes to you from time of order. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)
The announcement by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in December 2013 that Amazon was developing its own airborne delivery service, Amazon Prime Air, with the intention of delivering an order to the customer in 30 minutes made everyone sit up and listen. Apart from the fact that current regulations would currently prohibit such a service, there is also the little matter of whether such an endeavour would ever be technically feasible. Reality aside, it certainly did get Bezos some serious media exposure for free and did spark public interest.
The term “drone” has won common acceptance to describe a wide variety of systems and technologies that more accurately can be referred to as unmanned (or uninhabited) aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), remotely operated aircraft (ROA) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) to more accurately describe the aircraft and its intended uses. Section 101.01 of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) states, “Unmanned Air Vehicle” means a power driven aircraft, other than a model aircraft, that is operated without a flight crew member on board. Whatever they are called, they are all considered to be aircraft from a regulatory point of view and for the purposes of this article we shall use the terms UAV and drone interchangeably.
|The Draganflyer X4-ES is used by RCMP in rural and remote areas of Canada by collision reconstruction analysts and forensic crime scene investigators.
(Photo courtesy of Draganflyer)
The Canadian military has had considerable experience in Afghanistan with UAVs and in the words of RCAF Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, the experience was overwhelmingly positive and he was personally impressed with the incredible amount of information these systems can provide in a military context. Appearing before the Senate Defence Committee in March 2013, Lt. Gen. Blondin spoke of his desire to acquire a platform that is able to fly on extended, long-range surveillance patrols far out to sea off Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as conducting Arctic sovereignty patrols. He went on to say that these machines could be deployed in humanitarian missions such as the response to Haiti in 2010, where the ability to more quickly determine the damage to roads and other infrastructure in remote areas would have been invaluable.
Blondin’s comments were backed by the Chief of Defence staff, Gen. Tom Lawson, in a November 2013 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lawson said the purchase of a fleet of drones was included in the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy. The decision to be made is whether Canadian drones will be armed or strictly for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes. Reportedly, the government is considering purchasing of up to 18 UAVs for the Royal Canadian Air Force, either Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) aircraft such as the Heron, which the Canadian Forces has operated in Afghanistan or High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) machines such as the Predator or possibly a combination of types. No specific costs have been released but the project’s price tag is estimated to be more than $1.5 billion.
In 2011, Canadian frigates operating in the Mediterranean in support operations in Libya and on piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia deployed the ScanEagle UAV. Originally developed by the American firm Insitu, now a subsidiary of Boeing, to conduct off-shore surveys to assist commercial fishermen by collecting weather information and tracking offshore fish, the ScanEagle is equipped with either an optical camera or an IR camera in an inertia stabilized system and has and endurance of up to 20 hours. The UAV is launched by compressed air and is retrieved using a “skyhook.” In 2009 a ScanEagle was used by the U.S. navy for surveillance purposes during the Maersk Alabama highjacking incident.
|The Draganflyer X4-ES control unit.
(Photo courtesy of Draganflyer)
The current state of UAVs is akin to aviation at the end of the First World War. In the past decade, the military have come to rely on UAVs to fill a number of roles and are seeking to expand both the technology and the roles. On the civil side, many operators see the commercial potential for UAV operations in a number of areas, but current regulations restrict a wholesale unleashing of machines in a repeat of the barnstorming era of the 1920s. If the Canadian military is to enter the world of UAVs to the extent suggested, there are lessons that can be learned by those in the civilian world who have designs on commercial UAV operations. There are a number of issues that will have to be addressed before UAVs can enter commercial service in any meaningful numbers, including certification process, registration, maintenance regimes and especially, pilot/operator training and certification.
It may come as a surprise to many Canadians to know that Transport Canada (TC) has been working closely with industry over the same period to develop regulations for the operation of UAVs in Canadian airspace. Under current TC regulations, UAVs operating in Canada must meet “equivalent” levels of safety as manned aircraft and no one may operate an “unmanned aerial vehicle” without a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC). The terms of reference for the working group state that “the primary goal of the Working Group is to define a performance-based regulatory framework for medium to long-range, medium altitude, beyond line-of-sight UAV operations in Canadian airspace.”
That said, the group realized very early in the process that most future UAV operations would likely be small UAVs operated at low altitudes, rather than larger, general aviation-sized aircraft that are capable of flying in Class A or Class B airspace. The Working Group includes representation from Transport Canada, DND, NAV CANADA, National Research Council, Canadian Owners and Pilots Association and 16 private sector Canadian UAV stakeholders including UAS system developers, operators, UAV sector associations and academia.
Stewart Baillie, Chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada, sees this as an exceptionally positive arrangement, “the regulator and the industry are collaborating and working together. Everyone has a lot of time for us and certainly we are having good discussions,” he says. Baillie describes TC as being very pragmatic given that they are working with limitations of budget and staff. “They’ve been very receptive, we’re helping to develop the syllabus, we’re talking about registering aircraft and they are quite open to us (the industry) doing some of the legwork and then trying to adopt (suggestions) as best they can.” An example of the willingness of the regulator to work with the industry was the full-day workshop at the 2013 Unmanned Systems Canada Conference in Vancouver that featured Martin Eley, Director General of Civil Aviation and other officials from TC.
While public attention is riveted on the large, high-flying military drones it quickly became apparent to the members of the working group that future civil UAV operations in Canada would not be based on general aviation-sized aircraft, but rather small, lightweight UAVs operated at low to medium altitudes and beyond visual range. At present, there are a very limited number of UAV models that are capable of flying in Class A and/or B airspace, and they are very expensive. While the TC working group recommendations include “medium to long-range, medium altitude, beyond line-of-sight operations” UAVs, the bulk of the recommendations are intended to address the small UAV market.
|An unobstructed overhead view of a collision scene or crime scene can be critical to an investigation.(Photo courtesy of Draganflyer)
Transport Canada has taken a very simple approach with the small UAVs under 35 kilograms. If the machine is used for any commercial purpose, it falls under the regulations. Even if it is sold or marketed as a “toy” or “model,” an SFOC is required. You can buy a $200 quadcopter at your local big box store, equip it with a small digital camera and use it to take aerial photos or video of your own house, but if you do it for your brother-in-law the real estate agent and charge for your services, you need the paperwork.
Canadians have been operating UAVs for a number of years in a number of different applications. The OPP and RCMP were amongst the first law enforcement agencies to embrace the utility of small rotary UAVs to provide a level of service to police officers in rural and remote areas. Being able to use a small UAV to take aerial photos of serious motor vehicle accident scenes or major crime sites adds a level of sophistication to investigations that would not otherwise be accessible. Low level aerial videos are increasingly being incorporated into real estate marketing schemes, for high-end residential properties and for presenting views of proposed developments that would not otherwise be possible. Search-and-rescue teams in suburban Vancouver have been investigating the potential of integrating small UAVs into ground search protocols.
Bezos and Amazon may have grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines with his futuristic UAV delivery system, but he was far from the first to conceive of the idea. In Australia, Zookal, a startup textbook rental company, announced that it would deliver textbooks to clients in urban centres utilizing GPS co-ordinates, while in Wisconsin, regional brewer Lakemaid ran an ad on YouTube (check it out) demonstrating its beer drone delivery system. Beer, textbooks and the cornucopia that is Amazon – all in 30 minutes or less. Can life get any better?
Hold on to that thought, because a simple reality check tells us that any of these schemes is a long way from coming to an airspace near you. Bezos’ was quite right to refer to the current FAA policies on UAV operations during his reveal on 60 Minutes and the truth behind the video that Amazon provided demonstrating how it might look in the future was actually shot outside the U.S. so as not to antagonize the regulators. In the case of the beer and book schemes, it’s a question of whether small rotary UAVs are actually capable of lifting the proposed loads, not to mention a myriad of other questions in regards to the business model. It has been suggested that the box of beer in the Lakemaid video is just the box and no beer. Notwithstanding, once it came to the attention of the FAA, the word came from Washington to cease and desist. Of course, whether or not these schemes ever get off the ground, they have generated more media attention and free publicity on an unprecedented scale.
|For under $400, you can record HD video or photos, under the control of your phone or tablet. The distinction between toy and functional aircraft has become even more blurred.
(Photo courtesy of Parrot SA)
In Canada, the chokepoint will come as more UAV operators come on line and SFOC requests increase accordingly. SFOCs are issued by the TC regional offices, by general aviation inspectors who have a wide range of responsibilities. Within TC there is not a single position that is specifically responsible for UAVs and this situation will create a bottleneck as SFOC requests increase. The good work done by working with industry may come to naught if certificate requests cannot be handled in a reasonable timeline. As much as the regulations are required to enable the industry to grow, TC needs to be given enough staff with the requisite skills to support the industry as it moves out of the incubator and into its growth phase.
Future growth in the Canadian UAV industry has to come from within. Canadian universities and colleges are seeing a surge in interest around UAVs. The Unmanned Systems Canada Student Competition started a decade ago with three entrant teams. This year’s competition will see 16 teams from institutions across Canada converge on Southport, Man. The three-day competition will see teams integrate an aircraft, sensor package and ground control station as they are given a complex series of tasks to perform based entirely on real-world situations.
The potential exists for UAVs to operate in many environments in a wide variety of roles, in some cases potentially replacing piloted aircraft while in other situations working in concert with piloted aircraft to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the mission. This is especially applicable to the existing rotary-wing community, who may wish to adopt UAVs as a value-added proposition. The day is coming when UAVs will operate in civil airspace, but until the technology is developed that will enable UAVs to be fully integrated and until the regulatory framework is in place, that potential will remain untapped.