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Drone Wars

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In Canada, all commercial flying must be flown by a commercial pilot. Commercial is defined in regulations as any flight done for a net gain, or benefit. For example, if a Private Pilot takes his friends for a ride that is considered a non-commercial activity. If that same pilot, on that same flight, charges his friends for gas then the line is crossed and that now becomes a commercial activity. For further clarity; if you invoice then it is commercial.

Commercial pilots know things that other pilots and non-pilots in particular are unlikely to know. Such as flying near an airport is flying in restricted airspace. Or adjacent to a forest fire. There are safety reasons for avoiding flight over crowds, or built-up areas, flight below a certain altitude, or even flight over National Park space. All pilots are taught the rules and regulations that govern flight, and Commercial Pilots are taught about the rules specific to commercial aviation activities. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’S, or “Drones” in popular media) are relatively new technology (1960’s) and their use in commercial aviation even more recent, twenty-first century stuff. While to a pilot this is simply another form of aviation new problems are emerging because it is not just pilots that are flying them.

Real-estate agents (for example) with no previous flight training are suddenly using them to obtain imagery that previously could only have been obtained by hiring a comparatively expensive helicopter (flown by a Commercial Pilot). The spectrum of what can be photographed and video-taped is also expanded beyond the capabilities of conventional aircraft with small UAV’s. The ability to go places that an aircraft with a forty of fifty foot wing-span cannot is part of the attraction to them in fact.

Recreational enthusiasts can now film themselves from a drone while mountain-biking, or rock-climbing (there is an iPhone app that gets the drone to follow your phone where-ever it goes through a blue-tooth connection). Security personnel can grab imagery of sites they are protecting. Fire-fighters now have a tool for obtaining a real-time aerial overview of the house fires they attend. Wedding photography is transformed. Survey work, search and rescue, construction site monitoring, traffic monitoring, news gathering, wildlife tracking, movie productions, broadcast sports events. The list of potential applications is long.

But, whereas Commercial Pilots would seldom risk the loss of their license from a violation of regulations, what are the consequences to non-pilots? A Commercial Pilot would never hover a helicopter outside the fifteenth floor apartment window of a pretty girl to get a glimpse of something private because it would mean the end of a career in aviation. Likewise low-level flight over concerts. Or to hover and watch a house fire just because. The cost is just too high for breaking the regs. But for non-pilots that now have the ability to do essentially the same thing? Presently, there is no consequence whatsoever. And this is going to lead to conflicts over three main areas; Privacy, safety, and conflicts with legitimate commercial aviation activity.

First, let us tackle the question about who can fly for benefit because the current aviation regulations (Canadian Aviation Regulations, or CAR’s) are crystal clear about this point. To fly for money, to fly ANYTHING for money, you need to have a Commercial Pilots license. This according to CAR 401.30 and 421.30. So if you are thinking about buying a drone and hiring it out to the CBC for news gathering, forget it. You can own the drone, but will need to hire a Commercial Pilot to fly it for that kind of commercial activity. Likewise the real-estate agent as those images of properties for sale are definitely being obtained for commercial gain. Even the police are not supposed to be flying these things (police are paid after-all) unless the missions the police are flying are flown by Commercial Pilots (Currently even the police are usually over-looking this technicality).

There is another little-known regulation about commercial UAV flights, and that is they must be operated by two pilots. That’s right, two pilots. The principal responsibility of one being that of spotter, or safety pilot. One person that is not focused on the operation of the UAV, but rather potential conflicts with other aircraft, people on the ground, terrain, buildings, wires, towers, wildlife, etc. Mentioning this is the segue in this article into safety.

Secondly; safety. It is essential to understand that regulations that govern safe flying are not suspended just because you have a UAV, even if it is comparatively small. It would still be considered reckless to fly to close to people or built-up areas, for example. The potential damage a UAV could inflict might be small compared to a conventional aircraft, but they can still kill. Even a ten or twenty kilo airplane falling from a height of a hundred feet could be really dangerous to anyone below.

Likewise the dangers exist higher up too. Recently a Jazz pilot reported passing a small recreational drone while climbing through eighteen thousand feet with his airplane. Eighteen thousand feet. Yes, some of these things actually have that kind of capability. Even licensed Private Pilots are not allowed at those flight levels without special ratings.

Finally, privacy. While there are already laws that protect us from others engaged in inappropriate behaviour, those sort of individuals are still around in our community. The law alone is insufficient to discourage or deter inappropriate behaviour in all people. Now however those same individuals have drones at their disposal, and no additional regulation or monitoring is going to curtail them. It turns into a gun argument with one side saying that guns do not kill, people do, and the other side saying (simplistically) take the guns away from the people. A drone in the hands of a responsible person (A licensed Pilot) is not a worry. A drone, like a gun, in the hands of the irresponsible will be capable of doing serious damage.

So the entire conversation comes down to two basic questions; Who is flying it? What are they doing with it?

Until just recently all flying done in Canada was done exclusively by pilots. Trained and certified as fit and competent, every airplane or helicopter you saw in the sky was flown by someone that was suitably fit and licensed to do so. Further, if it was commercial flying (flying for any benefit of any kind whatsoever) then it was being flown by the holder of a Commercial Pilots License (CPL). There never has been a time when non-commercial pilots could aviate for money, and this is certainly not the time to begin allowing that.

Blame all of this on the iPad by the way. Yes, the iPad. With its built in compass, GPS and accelerometers that allowed it to determine which way it was facing, tell up from down, and pinpoint its location to within a metre or so anywhere on the planet. The same tech that is inside todays tablets is what is in the miniature computers aboard recently developed UAV’s. It is that technology that has transformed RC (Radio-Controlled) Airplane flying (with UAV’s) amongst hobbyists.
Previously small RC aircraft had real practical limitations in their capabilities, and were not all that easy to fly. Especially the helicopter versions. Few were capable of flying more than a couple of hundred feet above the ground, and most were small enough as to pose little or no hazard to people, infrastructure or especially, other “real” aircraft. That is no longer the case. A modern UAV is easily capable of flight up to more than 15000’ above sea level (think, mountain-tops), can carry a payload of camera gear (or anything, really), and can fly themselves autonomously with little or even no pilot input.

Pilot input. That is the answer to everyone’s concerns about drones. If Transport Canada simply made it clear to non-pilots (hobbyists) that they are not, in current regulations, allowed to fly above four hundred feet above ground level (An existing regulation) , and cannot fly commercially without a Commercial Pilots License (Also an existing regulation) then all of the concerns being expressed could be put to rest.

As it is, all commercial UAV activity in Canada already requires a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) for every flight. So do not worry about making up new rules, simply enforcing the existing ones would address almost all concerns related to “drones”.

The problem is not the drone, it is rather who is flying them. The who has become more troubling lately, as most hobbyists have no training whatsoever in airspace restrictions, meteorology, communications, flight planning, airframes, air law or any of the numerous other subjects that professional (Commercial) pilots are skilled in. Unfortunately some hobbyists also lack fundamental people skills with which most of us can demonstrate the appropriate level of respect for our neighbours privacy.

Let us all be careful to avoid Band-Aid solutions too. Transport Canada is reportedly contemplating the creation of an entirely new class of pilot that has lesser training to accommodate UAV operators. Coming sometime in 2017, that would just be a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

Improve awareness amongst hobbyists. Make it clear that all UAV operations with aircraft of any size being flown for Commercial reasons be flown by Commercial Pilots. This is a simple matter to address, and it is Transport Canada’s responsibility to get back out in front of this parade.

It is going to be a big parade too, so they better get into their position fast.


Written by snappledagain

08/28/2014 at 16:13

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