The burgeoning drone-based services industry may have been cheering the federal government’s recently-updated recreational drone regulations for limiting hobbyists, but the rules don’t exactly make developing a commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) delivery system a walk in the park either, experts say.
While the federal government has granted numerous Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC)s for what is referred to in the industry as “within visual line of sight” projects, aside from a pair of test sites in Alma, Quebec, and Foremost, Alberta, it’s been reluctant to grant certificates authorizing tests for “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS).
And if the government wants to see a viable UAV business with Canada among its leaders, Alma and Foremost are not enough, Mark Aruja, chair of Unmanned Systems Canada (USC), a not-for-profit association that advocates on behalf of Canada’s unmanned vehicle systems community, tells ITBusiness.ca.
“They are not necessarily environments where you can do business case testing,” he says. “Companies need to be able to improve the technology, then move into environments that better represent the circumstances they actually need to test to improve their business case.”
A booming sector
Whatever the government’s next move, he notes, the industry is exploding regardless: In 2013, for example, there were around 300 Canadian companies in the UAV sector. Yoday, Aruja estimates, there are close to 1000.
Drone Delivery Canada is one of the sector’s more prominent innovators, most recently announcing the development of BVLOS technology with the University of Toronto and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and, late last year, a collaborative project with Staples Canada to develop a commercial drone delivery service.
DDC CEO Tony Di Benedetto emphasizes that his company is collaborating with the federal government, which he says has given its full support to UAV technology, noting that the SFOC which DDC received late last year allows his company to commercially test its platform within southern Ontario.
“The government is not ignoring this technology,” Di Benedetto says. “They see that it’s an economic driver for Canada, and they definitely see its applications… but they also want it implemented properly. They don’t want cowboys. They’re very concerned about the consumer operator who goes to Best Buy and buys a drone and, with very little accountability and no training in its use, causes irreversible damage on their first flight.”
While Canadian numbers are difficult to find, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration expects the number of drones sold in the U.S. to rise from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020, with hobbyists alone purchasing an estimated 1.9 million drones last year.
DDC, which Di Benedetto is confident will be offering a commercialized drone-based delivery service by the end of the year, is a different beast: “We operate as a managed service, like any other in the IT world,” he says. “We have control centres that essentially oversee the platform’s operation, and consider many angles beyond the drone.”
“Our approach has been, ‘Let us start in Canada’s backyard – its remote communities, far away from people, where there’s an immediate need – and work with you to bring this technology to fruition before bringing it closer to more urban users,” he says.
Di Benedetto notes that while DDC’s current certificate restricts it to within visual line of sight, it plans to begin BVLOS testing in Foremost this spring – and the exact date will be DDC’s choice, not the result of a government mandate.
“We could go there today,” he says. “But as a commercial operator, there’s a development process… we’ve been given a very stringent path that we’re proud to follow… It’s all about safety.”
So what’s holding it back?
Though USC’s Aruja is confident that DDC will have “every opportunity” to test and develop its long-distance technology this summer, in his experience Transport Canada has been reluctant to engage in drone regulation. As a result, his association has taken a gradual approach, with visual line of sight as its initial boundary and BVLOS as its next goal.
For the past four years, in fact, both DDC and USC have collaborated with Transport Canada to develop a complimentary guide to best practices for the industry, including a certification program, the USC’s Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFLC). The most recent rules were issued in 2014, and Transport Canada plans to release an updated version this spring.
(Aruja expects to see some 5000 SFLCs approved in Canada this year – a massive number, considering only 200 were approved as recently as four years ago.)
For the upcoming guide, USC has advocated – and Aruja himself testified to a parliamentary standing committee – that the government needs to begin approving BVLOS trials and demonstrations for the industry this year.
“Clearly for what Drone Delivery Canada and most of what Canada needs, we need to go beyond visual line of sight,” he says. “And because our summers are relatively short we want the government to begin approving trials early in the new year, so that companies including DDC can start putting in applications.”
And as the UAV industry has grown, the number of uses it’s found for drones has risen too, Aruja says, with regular users in such far-flung industries as the film, agriculture, construction, engineering, and emergency services sectors, though he notes that last year’s announcement by DDC and Staples represents the first use of UAVs transporting goods.
For example, in Aruja’s opinion Canada’s geography could be perfect for what he calls “precision logistics” – a futuristic industry that essentially automates the retail supply chain.
“The reality is that Canada’s geography is huge, and you can live in the GTA and not really appreciate the challenges we face with remote communities,” he says. “We’ve already seen how much agriculture has been shifted by the use of UAVs, and I think we have the opportunity with precision logistics to see the next step in another dimension.”
When contacted by ITBusiness.ca, Transport Canada media relations staff confirmed that Drone Delivery Canada had secured a valid SFOC, but could not give further details regarding the precise activities authorized.
“Anyone using a drone for commercial or research purposes must hold a SFOC from Transport Canada,” the organization told ITBusiness.ca in an email. “Every SFOC application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis according to such criteria as the proposed use and the experience and safety record of the applicant. Each SFOC contains specific terms on what the operator is and is not allowed to do.”
While certain SFOCs can include such restrictions as maximum altitude, mandatory communications with air traffic control, and minimum required distances from aerodromes, people, and buildings, Transport Canada could not share details of DDC’s SFOC due to third-party agreements.
The representative noted that one factor affecting Canada’s BVLOS regulations was the fact that items being carried can potentially be used as weapons.
“Any payload that can be jettisoned, dispersed, or dropped from the UAV can be dangerous,” the representative wrote. “To receive permission to carry out such activities, an operator would need to demonstrate to Transport Canada their ability to mitigate the heightened risk to people on the ground and to other aircraft.”
Other considerations, the representative said, include collision risk, the applicant’s proposed means to mitigate that risk, specific weather requirements, and the navigation system’s accuracy and reliability.