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Is the future of drone use on a collision course with the law?

By Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 9:30 PM

The footage above, showing the damage path from Ontario's fifth confirmed tornado of the season, was filmed using a small, remote-controlled drone, revealing just one of the potential uses of these remarkable flying machines. However, an incident at Vancouver International Airport on Monday is showing another side of the issue and raising concerns about how drones are being used now and what will happen as more of them fill our skies in the future.

Monday's incident involved a civilian-owned drone reportedly "flying dangerously close" to the airport's landing flight path. Apparently, it wasn't the first incident of its kind at Vancouver's airport, and similar incidences have been reported in the United States and in Australia. Apparently, in all of these cases, it was a hobbyist flying their drone near the airports, with no malicious intent behind the act. However, although in one case it seems that some reports exaggerated how close the drone came to the aircraft, all were still too close for the comfort level of authorities (and the pilots).

Just as there are regulations in place regarding how close commercial and passenger airplanes can come to each other and to an airport (with and without permission), governments have rules in place for these smaller, unmanned aircraft as well. These were first introduced to deal with model airplanes - defined by the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) as "an aircraft, the total weight of which does not exceed 35 kg (77.2 pounds), that is mechanically driven or launched into flight for recreational purposes and that is not designed to carry persons or other living creatures." The general rule put into place for these types of craft are that "no person shall fly a model aircraft ... into cloud or in a manner that is or is likely to be hazardous to aviation safety," so it simply falls back to a 'common sense' factor of keeping your aircraft within sight and away from anywhere where it may cause harm.

RELATED: Drone captures aerial view of Ontario tornado

Many of the drones currently in use by hobbyist meet the requirements of being a model aircraft as well, even though they may be called 'unmanned air vehicles' (UAV), which is a term the government reserves for when they're put to commercial or scientific uses. That would mean they fall under the same 'common sense' rules as model aircraft, which aren't exactly very detailed. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released new rules that require model airplane operators to ask permission from an airport's control tower if they intend to fly their aircraft within five miles (eight kilometres) of that airport. By comparison, regardless of the fact that endangering the safety of an aircraft in flight carries a stiff penalty in Canada (up to life imprisonment), the actual rules for operating a model aircraft near an airport seem to be far more open to interpretation, and the person in control of the drone may have a much different opinion than a pilot or an air traffic controller of what is 'hazardous to aviation safety.'

Model aviators, such as those that fly with clubs under the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC) already have a 'See and Avoid Rule' in place for these cases, calling for the model aviator to yield to full-scale aircraft, either by landing their model, avoiding the flight path of the full-scale aircraft or holding their take-off until the full-scale aircraft has passed. However, after an incident in March 2013, involving a model helicopter near Vancouver International Airport, the association's board of directors put added measures into effect, including restricting flight within 5 nautical miles (9.3 kilometres), not just from an airport, but from any location that handles inbound and outbound aircraft (generally known as an aerodrome). These are quite similar to the FAA rules in the United States. There are some reasonable allowances in the MAAC measures, to ensure that those people living close to aerodromes won't be unnecessarily burdened by the rules. However, operating under the 'honour system' isn't always going to guarantee safe flying by everyone, and not everyone flying a drone is necessarily going to be a member of the MAAC (and thus won't know about these measures).

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When it comes to commercial and scientific uses of UAVs, there are much stricter rules in place. The FAA recently imposed new rules in the United States, including forcing Amazon to put their plans for drone deliveries on hold. They're being viewed by many as too restrictive, though, as they draw a line specifically between commercial and noncommercial use that may not be entirely logical when it comes to promoting safety. Here in Canada, if you want to fly a drone commercially or to conduct science, you need to detail every aspect of the use of your UAV to the government, to receive a specific permit (a Special Flight Operating Certificate), or you're not even going to get your drone off the ground. Even after receiving the certificate, a flight plan must be filed and approved each time the drone lifts off, just as if you were operating a full-scale aircraft.

Regardless of these restrictive rules, drone use is only going to get more common. Companies like Amazon, who can benefit financially from their use, aren't likely to give up their plans completely. The recent setback for them will likely just result in attempts to refine the rules or set up some kind of licensing for it. News agencies, sports stadiums and the like are still going to be interested in what drones can do for them. Recreational use, under those 'model aircraft' rules, will only increase from here as drones get cheaper and easier to use. So, as our skies get increasingly more crowded (and let's not forget the potential for flying cars), perhaps Canada needs to set some rules that are less dependent on interpretation. Imposing commercial rules on the hobbyist would likely be seen as going too far, but perhaps the MAAC measures would be a good place for the government to start.

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