Canada gets it right: Small UAV Regulation Best Practices

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Any aviation regulator in the world has the same mandate; to protect persons and property. The aviation system that now physically connects the entire globe is built on a set of rules that solve this very complex problem and provide for the safest and most ubiquitous transportation system in history; a set of rules we all innately trust whenever we walk down a jetway.

As a professional pilot, I’ve lived by these rules in the cockpit, and trusted that the aviators with whom I share the airspace are following the same code; much like any of us can rely on the shared truth that a red light means to stop anywhere in the world. This coordinating principle of common code is the bedrock of aviation safety, and the first tracks establishing these standards have been laid for almost 100 years now. Aerial robots need to join a digital system that is built on these principles. At Skyward, we’re literally coding in these rules that define the airways above our heads to a digital system, and providing an easy and elegant path for commercial drone operators to follow them.

We’ve developed a simple rubric to understand the contours of any regulatory system in the world, whether it be for authorizing manned or robotic systems to participate in the public good that is the airspace of any nation:

  • Who is flying the machine, and how are they trained?
  • What is the machine they are flying, and how is that engineering documented to prove that it is safe?
  • Where and When are they flying; which airspace are they flying in, and what are the implications of coordinating with other participants in that airspace?
  • How are they flying; under what conditions and specific rules?

Canada is miles/kilometers ahead of the US in providing a reasonable, safe, and permissive regulatory scaffolding upon which aerial robotics can grow and flourish.  Transport Canada (TC) has been providing a defined path to legal commercial drone operations for years under a permitting process called the Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). This is the same regulatory process they use to approve special aviation events like air shows that would otherwise violate Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) (e.g. jets flying lower and faster than normally allowed). Ahead of writing a new set of CARs to integrate what TC calls Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (s) into Canadian airspace, they’ve employed the SFOC process with great efficiency and efficacy to allow for commercial operations to proceed; including applications to conduct commercial R+D (which Amazon is struggling to get approved through the FAA). The SFOC allows regulators to make subjective decisions about aviation safety based on the specifics of the application. If the who, what, where, when, and how are answered in a way that conforms to the current rules of the road, and mitigates the risk to persons and property to near-zero, then the operation is approved.

It’s worth noting that while we’ve chosen to illustrate Canada’s regulatory system as an exemplar here, there are also excellent regulatory frameworks in the UK, Australia, much of Western Europe, and most of South America.

Canada has been able to evolve in harmony with the rapid advances in aerial robotics technology

Rather than leading with a stance of ‘prohibition until we figure this out’, Canada has gone with a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach wherein the applicant must incrementally earn the regulator’s trust to be permitted to do more. Picture a real estate agent based in Montreal who would like to employ a Phantom 2 Vision+ to add some aerial shots to her listings. Under the SFOC process, she would first apply to do a single operation defining very specifically where and when she’ll be flying, who she is and how she’s trained, a full set of specifications on what she’s flying, and the procedures she’ll follow to mitigate risk. Assuming all answers are satisfactory, TC will then approve that single operation. For her next application, assuming the first operation was safe and successful, she can apply to expand the ‘where and when’ dimensions of her application; and based on the trust she’s earned with the regulator in the ‘crawl’ stage, TC can approve her to perhaps expand the geographic area in which she’s authorized to fly and/or the timeframe for which the permit is scoped (e.g. rather than approving one flight on a specific day at a specific location, TC could approve her to fly operations in a specified area at any time over a specific period of approval). After a few of these ‘walk’ iterations, she may be approved for a ‘standing SFOC’; a flight permit issued for an entire province over a period of up to three years. This very comprehensive SFOC document now specifically lays out the rules she must follow to remain in compliance as she conducts any number of operations during that period in any number of locations, and she does not need to apply to conduct each specific flight. TC can always audit her and ask that she prove current and historical compliance; the exact same regulatory method used for the current manned system of aviation in both Canada and the US.

The FAA has also recently provided a subjective application process to fly drones commercially under an awkward regulatory patchwork of ill-fitting structures called the Section 333 Exemption and Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA). While it is good that there is finally a ‘path to yes’ for commercial operations in the US, the application process has proven to be glacially-slow, and the method of subjectivity employed to process applications has been so opaque, it makes the FAA look more like a clandestine government agency than the administerer of a public good.

Informed guidance to help applicants and regulators

Ahead of codifying the specifics into a system of aviation laws under the CARs, Transport Canada has done a fantastic job of establishing an understanding of the best answers to the who, what, where, when and how for commercial operations that should be approved under the SFOC. In order to develop and establish this path of intelligence, they reached out to industry and requisitioned a set of ‘best practices’ guidance that are comprised of three areas:

  1. Pilot
  2. system design standard
  3. Operator requirements

TC says that SFOC applicants demonstrating compliance with all three areas may be eligible for SFOCs of greater scope and/or duration, and may also benefit from more timely application approval. Basically, TC worked directly with industry to figure out a set of fact patterns for this new technology and its innovative new class of aviator that would arrive at the same standard of aviation safety we all trust today. It’s a framework that not only makes it easier to navigate the SFOC for applicants, but also for the regulators who are processing the applications using their best, subjective judgment. These best practices look a lot like the rules of the road I’ve known since my first weeks at flight school, and I would trust any of the new, innovative aviators employing drones in the airspace next to me if I can trust that they’re conforming to these principles.

An intelligent structure of commercial exemptions and accountability

Transport Canada  has taken everything it’s learned under the SFOC framework to take the next step towards an installed and established system of regulation for commercial aerial robotics. In November at the Unmanned Systems Canada conference in Montreal, TC announced a two-tiered system of exemptions under which commercial drone operators can now fly with very light direct interactions with the regulator. When they sat down to codify what they’ve learned into law, TC took a very intelligent approach, in our opinion, to meeting their mandate to protect persons and property. They first established a threshold of drone that, no matter what, almost certainly could not kill a person should everything go awry. Based on an understanding of golf ball ballistics, they determined that a weighing less than 2 kg falling from the sky at terminal velocity directly onto someone’s head would most likely not be fatal. Therefore, the first and most permissive threshold is for vehicles under 2 kg.

The second threshold is set at more than 2 kg and less than 25 kg, and adds a higher level of compliance and associated risk mitigation to fly commercially. Both exemption structures define the who, what, where, when, and how with great clarity, and TC has launched the program in tandem with an appropriate push to educate the public about aviation safety in the new era of aerial robotics. An operator flying under either exemption must still know and conform to these now codified rules, and be able to prove current and historical compliance with the new law if operating commercially. If the operation still falls out of one of these exemption structures (e.g. you want to fly over a populated area), there is still the SFOC application available.

Finally, there are strict fines in place enforceable by TC and local police and mounties for those who don’t comply under one of these exemptions or approved SFOC application, providing the final backstop needed for the regulatory system to be effective. The bottom line is that there is a clear and reasonable path for drone operators to fly safely and legally in Canada, and if they don’t, there are consequences.

The fact is, I’m just a really big aviation nerd; and having flown all over the world before starting this company, I have to say that the Canadian system for integrating s is elegantly designed and implemented with excellence. Perhaps if you’re reading all the way to the bottom of this article, you’re nerdy enough to appreciate it. Hopefully, at least one of the folks at the FAA who fit that description is wallowing in aviation wonkiness right now and opening every link.