Drones Take Off In Canada, Not US

Oct 20, 2014

Commercial drones are waiting for approval from the FAA to begin flying in the United States.
Credit Bureau of Land Management

The Canadian aviation agency, Transport Canada, has approved the flights of more than 300 small unmanned aerial vehicles so far this year, just in the northern region of the country alone.

"In Canada, as globally, UAV is exploding. It’s a huge growth area," says Joe Barnsley, an aviation attorney based in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, The U.S. drone industry is simmering more than exploding. How do those 300 drone flights compare to here in New York, which has one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s six approved test sites? Well, the group running the test site, NUAIR, just won approval for only its six flight operation. That’s after years of effort.

Getting approval to use a drone is just much simpler in Canada, says Roger Haessel of the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems.

"And you can apply to Transport Canada for what called a Special Flight Operating Certificate. And what you’re doing there, is you’re making the case to Transport Canada what you’re going to be doing," says Haessel.

List location, flight times, activities… and you’re free to take off… As long as the drones must be less than 50 pounds, not fly above 400 feet, and not leave the operator’s sight. By some estimates, the Canadian drone industry is almost a decade ahead of the U.S.

"People feel that they’re being stymied at the regulatory level. And it’s not just that the rules are particularly clear, either," says Haessel.

The FAA has a target date of late next year to finally begin to roll out regulations for widespread drone use. It’s been a slow, slow process even getting this far. UAIR spent the better part of a year just going through the FAA’s application process to become a test site. Then it had to get formal approval from the FAA to set up shop, which took another eight months. Each separate test flight it wants to conduct requires a certificate of Authorization, or COA. It’s similar to Canada’s certificates. But here, they take several weeks to earn a stamp of approval. It’s all enough of a hassle that many drone operators are choosing to just break the law.

"Having a ban on commercial flights hasn’t stopped commercial flight. It’s just, you’ve got people flying that maybe aren’t going through appropriate training and regulatory approval process that would be prudent," says Haessel.

The ease of regulation in Canada has allowed it to speed ahead of America for the economic benefits of private drone use. Mike Hogan works for Flyterra, a UAV company that has one of the first test plans for upstate New York. But Hogan’s company is located in Quebec, not the U.S., because that’s where clients are.

"I think it was easy for us to cross the border and it worked out really well that the NUAIR alliance was approved as a test site. And they really opened their arms to us," says Hogan.

Joe Barnsley, the aviation lawyer, sees the day the U.S. will be a powerful player in the commercial drone realm.

"You’re a much larger market than we are, so I think you’ll see you’ll catch up pretty quickly," says Barnsley.

So as Canada embraces small drones and the U.S. inches towards developing a thorough regulatory system, is Canada skipping the privacy and safety requirements American regulators are concerned about?

Barnsley says as with the FAA, there’s no way Transport Canada is an agency equipped to develop privacy rules. But he says that’s alright, because the bones of good privacy law are already in place.

"Well, I don’t think you have separate privacy for boats. I don’t think you do for cars. I don’t think you do for telescopes or ladders," says Barnsley.

He says courts should be able to adopt existing privacy laws to fit drones, without re-writing the whole rulebook.