Drones get more popular, and the rules are getting stricter

As drones become more popular, sophisticated and dangerous, Canada and the U.S. are working on new rules to rein in the use of unmanned aircraft in our increasingly crowded skies.

Prompted by growing concerns over safety, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has announced the creation of a task force to develop a registration system for drones.

Canada, meanwhile, is looking at bringing in updated drone regulations next year, replacing its existing safety guidelines with stricter rules requiring licensing, training and registration.

“That’s a no-brainer. That has to happen,”  Eddie Jara, of the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC), told CBC News. “You can’t just have anybody putting drones up in the air without any sort of regulation or there’s going to be a problem.”

Close calls

In Canada, as in the U.S., close calls between drones and aircraft are on the rise, and the consequences of a collision could prove deadly.

Just this August, a drone narrowly avoided crashing mid-air with a seaplane in Vancouver.

But Canada is no Wild West when it comes to drones. While the U.S. is just starting to regulate unmanned aircraft, we’ve had laws on the books since 1996.

To operate a drone — the official term is unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — heavier than 25 kg or for commercial or research purposes, Canadians must obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada.

You don’t need permission to fly a smaller drone for recreational purposes, but hobbyists are expected to follow Transport Canada’s safety guidelines, which forbid flying drones near airports, buildings, populated areas or moving vehicles.

Drones are also subject to Canadian Aviation Regulations, which state that it is illegal to do anything with an aircraft that puts aviation safety at risk, as well as any existing municipal, provincial or federal laws.

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“Using a UAV in a reckless and negligent manner could cause damage or bodily harm, resulting in lawsuits, fines and jail time,” Transport Canada spokeswoman Roxanne Marchand told CBC News in an email.

“Anyone who violates controlled or restricted airspace and endangers the safety of manned aircraft (airplanes) could face fines of up to $25,000 and/or prison.”

The problem, experts say, is that while anyone can buy a drone, not everyone is aware of the rules.

“Public awareness and enforcement is lacking,” Ernie Zeisman, president of a drone training organization in the British Columbia Interior, told The Canadian Press. “They need to begin clamping down.”

Jeremy Laliberté, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, agrees. He said the current rules were drafted when very few people had access to drones.

“For many decades, the whole hobbyist model aircraft thing was really the domain of a few enthusiasts,” Laliberté said. “Now, anyone can buy them pretty much anywhere. Corner stores, even.”

He said Transport Canada needs to create better public awareness about its safety guidelines.

“I think there might be some onus on the retailers and the distributors, too,” he added. “I think they have to come in, either voluntarily or through legislation, and take some responsibility for this.”

Canada a leader, experts say

Commercial and research drone operators are better educated about the rules, experts say, because they have to obtain SFOCs from Transport Canada and let the government know what kind of drones they’re using, where they’re using them and why.

“Commercial operators very much stick to the regulations and want to be responsible,” Zeisman said. “They don’t want to lose their licence.”

Ottawa Drone Geese

A drone hovers over Petrie Island park in Ottawa during a demonstration on Aug. 21, 2013. When it comes to research use like this, Canada is a leader on the world stage, experts say. (Michel Comte/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to using drones for research and commercial purposes, Jara and Laliberté say Canada is a world leader for its progressive stance — especially compared to the U.S., which has imposed a near-universal ban on commercial drones.

That’s why, for example, Amazon is conducting delivery drone flight tests in Canada.

“We’re ahead of them in a lot of ways,” said Laliberté, who often uses drones in his research at Carleton. “We have a system that allows commercial operations that provides for reasonable rules on recreational use for these aircraft, and provided people follow the rules, the system works.”

The U.S. has only issued 1,000 approvals for commercial and research drones under its limited exceptions to the ban. Canada, meanwhile, issued 1,672 SFOCs in 2014 alone, despite having far fewer tech companies and research institutions.

“I applaud Transport Canada’s take on things,” Jara said. “They haven’t taken an alarmist point of view.”

New rules coming

Still, tighter rules are coming to Canada that will affect both recreational and commercial users.

In May, Transport Canada announced a set of proposals for new regulations for drones under 25 kg.

Drafted through consultation with stakeholders from industry and hobbyist organizations, they could come into effect as early as next year, after public consultation and amendments.

“This is a very important file Transport Canada has been working on through successive governments,” Laliberté said. “What’s been developed represents many years of collaboration and consultation to get something that makes sense.”

Drone development in North Dakota

A small drone like this one doesn’t need to be registered in Canada, though that could change under the new proposed regulations. (Associated Press file photo)

Under the proposed framework, drones would be categorized and regulated according to their risk level.

Certain drones — the ones deemed more capable of causing damage to people and property, for example — will have to be registered by serial number, and people will have to get safety training and apply for pilot permits to operate them.

Capt. Ed Bunoza, chair of the Air Canada Pilots Association’s flight safety division, supports the proposed changes, especially registration.

“It can be easy to locate a UAV that has violated airspace rules, but it is often difficult to identify the operator,” he said in an email to CBC News.

“Registration means that any operator who has breached the regulations can be held accountable for their actions.”

Jara suspects the proposed regulation changes will be the first of many in Canada.

“You’re going to see amendment after amendment for the next few years, I can almost guarantee you,” he said. “The technology is advancing far quicker than what Transport Canada can regulate.”