Tighter drone rules could spell uncertainty for Canadian retailers

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      In the wake of a two-day shutdown at the U.K.’s international Heathrow Airport after drones were spotted near runways, the Canadian government has announced new rules on flying the devices.

      Currently, comparatively few regulations exist to restrict those looking to launch their drones—known legally as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)—into the sky recreationally. Anyone is able to visit the Best Buy website, pick one up for under $500, and record footage of snow-capped mountains ready to post on Instagram. Drones under 250 grams are not governed by regulations, and although basic rules exist around where and how far to fly a drone weighing over 250 grams, a lot of trust is placed in pilots to use their own common sense, as they don't require certification.

      That all changes on June 1, when the new rules come into effect.

      Eric Saczuk, a geomatics engineering instructor at BCIT who uses drones for his research, is of two minds about how the new regulations will affect the RPAS community. Saczuk, recently returned from a research trip in Antarctica, spent two weeks flying the devices in the extreme location to see whether or not they could feasibly be used to map the rapidly changing terrain. As a professional who has used drones for everything from cinematic projects to data collection, he has an authoritative insight into how the rules will change attitudes toward the devices.

      Some of the regulations could make it harder for hobbyist pilots to first get their drone off the ground.

      “What we’re seeing is that Transport Canada has now reduced the [number of] categories,” Saczuk tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “Before, there were the hobbyists: the model-aircraft types [or those shooting footage for fun]. Now they’ve amalgamated that into what we call recreational flying. The other category is the advanced users, which would be the commercial operators who are flying in cities and controlled airspace. The new regulations mean that if you’re a recreational flyer [or commercial flier, both with a drone weighing over 250 grams], you have to pass a basic test and get your pilot certification. If you’re a commercial user [flying in controlled airspace], you’ll go for the advanced test. ”

      The exam, however, is not simple.

      “I took the test two days ago, and it’s definitely not a walk in the park,” he says. “The average person who just wants to go to a retailer, purchase a drone, and start flying it is not going to be able to pass [without studying]. It’s very similar to a private pilot’s licence ground school, so there’s a lot of theory on weather, navigation, and airspace restriction. People will have to take a course to get the required knowledge.”

      As a result, retailers could see their drone sales start to drop. Enthusiasm for using the devices recreationally has hinged on low costs and accessibility, but new flyers could now be deterred by the work involved in obtaining a certificate and paying to register their drone with Transport Canada.

      Although the new regulations could discourage hobbyists, retailers might also feel the pinch as the country cracks down on specific devices for advanced operations.

      “Unless a current company has one of the drones that are on the Transport Canada compliance list, they won’t be able to fly it for [advanced] commercial purposes after June 1,” Saczuk says. “From all of the messages I’m seeing, that’s becoming quite a bone of contention. For myself, I have a DJI Inspire 2 that I currently use—legally—for all sorts of commercial work. As of June 1, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to fly that drone. It’s a problem because UAVs can be expensive, and a lot of the drones on the compliance list are in the five figures. If we’re talking about having to invest between $20,000 and $40,000 in equipment, it’s going to put a lot of small operators out of business.”

      While the instructor applauds the comprehensive outline of fines that can be applied to those who fly drones irresponsibly, he remains apprehensive about a potential reduction in the amount of drones available to the Canadian market for advanced flying come June. 

      “I certainly feel that registration and pilot certification are steps in the right direction,” he says. “But I’m wary about whether the manufacturers will follow the Transport Canada rules and make their drones compliant and safe.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays

      *This article was amended on January 17 to clarify the differences between basic and advanced commerical flying, and Transport Canada's new rules.