A Toronto-based company that announced a deal last fall with Shop.ca to provide drone deliveries to its ecommerce customers says while current government legislation doesn’t allow its business to operate today, it sees the path to a possible future where that could change.
More than a year after Amazon made international headlines by testing its drone delivery services in British Columbia after being turned away by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority, there’s still no clear path to how a commercial drone delivery service could operate at any significant scale. Though the legal framework for how that could be accomplished has already been developed by Transport Canada, it’s not been released to the public. Still, Drone Delivery Canada is among a small group of firms in the industry banking on its swift passage to law.
For now, the best hope for the company is to earn a special licence to operate within a specific rural, unpopulated area at first, says Paul Di Benedetto, chief technology officer (CTO) for Drone Delivery Canada.
The next step would be to build up comfort with the drones and have them operate in other areas over time, Di Benedetto added.
“This isn’t something that’s going to happen tomorrow, we know that,” he says. “The chance of you seeing drones flying all over Toronto skies in the next two years is highly unlikely.”
Commercial drones require regulatory runway
Currently, Transport Canada, the federal body that regulates commercial aviation, isn’t convinced that drones operated beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot are safe. Transport Canada refers to drones as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and is currently working towards enacting new regulations that will enable users to operate drones weighing 25 kg or less and stay within sight.
Those regulations follow up on the UAV Systems Program Design Working Group’s phase one final report delivered in March 2012 — the first report in a four-phase plan to form a complete legal framework for drone operations in Canada.
“One of the challenges of doing drone delivery is that you have to do something that’s beyond line of sight,” says Aaron McCrorie, director general of civil aviation for Transport Canada. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to do drone deliveries, but it’s very unlikely.”
There is one path a company could take to operating commercial drone flights beyond visual line of sight in Canada — applying for a special flight operations certificate with Transport Canada. If a company proves that it has mitigated the risks around flying drones that a pilot can’t see, it could potentially win the certificate, McCrorie says. A drone operator could win the right to do a test flight or a set of flights.
Commercial operators in Canada have shown a huge interest in winning these test licences. There were just 66 certificates issued in 2013, and that spiked to 2,480 certificates in 2015. But none of them won the right to operate a drone beyond a pilot’s line of sight.
“To date we haven’t seen anything that meets our requirements,” McCrorie says. “How do you equip UAVs operating beyond line of sight and what does that look like? The concept exists today, but the technology doesn’t exist.”
While no certificate has been issued by Transport Canada to operate commercial drones beyond line of sight, the organization was comfortable with one application to do so, McCrorie says. A company, not named by Transport Canada, proposed running drones along the coastal Hudson Bay area, supported by ground-based radar systems to prevent collisions with other aircraft. In the end, the operator decided not to go ahead with the plan.
Big potential market for drone deliveries
Drone Delivery Canada has been developing its business since 2013, Di Benedetto says. At that time, the subject seemed like a “George Jetson-era discussion,” but recent advances and the tests by Amazon show it’s closer to becoming a reality. The company wanted to prove there would at least be a business model for a drone delivery company, even if it wasn’t clear on the technological and legal path to operate it.
“The technology will be there, it’s not there today but it will be there,” he says. “We believe that we’ll be the first in Canada.”
Drone Delivery Canada approached Shop.ca along with 20 other test partners with its pitch and found a warm welcome, the CTO says. Drone technology can provide a delivery vehicle that isn’t expensive and work around the clock, potentially saving businesses with high shipping requirements money on paying delivery people on the ground and the maintenance of a fleet of trucks, plus the postal fees.
Transport Canada says it’s not blind to the ambitions of Drone Delivery Canada and others looking to operate drones beyond visual line of sight.
“We want to get better safety regulations in place,” he says. “At the same time, we recognize the economic potential of unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Drone regulations on the radar
While it works to implement regulations for phase one, the UAV Program Design Working Group is at work on phase two of the plan. According to Unmanned Systems Canada chairman Mark Aruja, the group has already delivered a framework for how beyond visual line of sight drone operations will be regulated. But it’s not available to the public yet.
“My understanding is that it is being held by Transport Canada until they can complete the process of having the report reviewed/approved by the Civil Aviation Regulatory Committee,” he says. “This effort has been set aside temporarily while the limited resources at Transport Canada put their effort to get the phase one work into regulations.”
While Canada’s regulations work on drones that have been in development since 2007 has many in the industry considering it an international leader in the area, and the Amazon testing in B.C. served as a testament to that, that reputation could be at risk. Lagging on regulations around beyond visual line of sight operations while other jurisdictions clear the way for commercial drones could see drone startups driven out of the country.
Moving the business to more friendly skies is a possibility that Di Benedetto doesn’t rule out for Drone Delivery Canada as a “worst case scenario.
“We can tech up and redeploy wherever the law allows us to do this,” he says. “We’d love to keep the technology in Canada, but if the laws down the road say it’s not possible, there are other geographic areas that are interested in this technology.”
For the time being, Canadians doing online shopping can expect to receive their orders the old-fashioned way — in the mail.