Just to the north, the drone industry takes off

Oct 13, 2014

There have been 1,020 small unmanned aerial vehicle flights -- what most people call drones -- in Canada this year, according to the Canadian transportation officials.

That's up from 945 in 2013 and 347 in 2012, Transport Canada reported.

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

Meanwhile, the U.S. drone industry is simmering more than exploding. 

How does a thousand drone flights compare to upstate 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 and none of those operations are fully underway yet.

Transport Canada approved 155 drone flights in 2011. They've signed off on 1,020 so far this year.

Slow progress

The United States has been inching towards the acceptance of unmanned aircraft taking to our skies. It brings huge economic potential, but also safety and privacy concerns.

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

"You can apply to Transport Canada for what's 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," he said.

List flight details and safety procedures and a drone operator is free to take off, as long as the drone is less than 50 pounds, doesn't fly above 400 feet, and does not leave the operator’s sight.

"You're basically making the case that what you're doing is legitimate and not going to cause any safety concerns," he said.

By some estimates, the Canadian drone industry is almost a decade ahead of the United States. Haessel says he senses a lot of frustration among the drone industry in the U.S.

"People feel that they’re being stymied at the regulatory level," he said.

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.

NUAIR 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. (The average application takes 10-20 days to be approved, according to Transport Canada.)

Dangerous precedent

"They seem to be less and less concerned what the rules are."

It’s all enough of a hassle that many drone operators are choosing to just break the law.

"There are still a fair number of people that are flying UAVs (in America), Haessel said, "because they seem to be less and less concerned what the rules are."

That's a dangerous precedent, he added.

"You’ve got people flying that maybe aren’t going through the appropriate training and regulatory approval process that would be prudent."

The ease of regulation in Canada has allowed it to speed ahead of America for the economic benefits of private drone use.

Flyterra, a UAV company that has one of the first approved drone flights in upstate New York, is located in Quebec, not the U.S., because until now, that’s where clients have been.

"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," said Mike Hogan, a business development manager with the company.

Precision Hawk, another company with approval to operate in upstate New York, has offices in Canada and the United Kingdom, along with its North Carolina headquarters.

The early uses of unmanned aircraft in New York mirror what they're being used for in Canada. Agriculture is a big field. But also in Canada, they're being used to map oil fields and pipelines too. Flyterra has a contract to inspect wind turbines in Kingston, Ontario, Hogan said.

No different than a ladder

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," he said.

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 so 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.

"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," he pointed out.

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

"The vehicle they use is just coincidental," he said.