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The Canadian UAS Industry Made Great Strides in 2017


October 11, 2017
By Mark Aruja

It is very likely that 2017 will be remembered as a watershed year for the Canadian UAS industry. Business activity is rising dramatically as both investors and customers are seeing supportable business cases.

The regulatory risk is decreasing, new products and services are coming to market, and close to a decade of commercial operating experience is building capacity beyond the pre-revenue stage. As importantly, the conversation is moving to automated vehicles, new communications technologies, data analytics and artificial intelligence.

Unmanned Systems Canada and LOOKNorth undertook an update of the UAS industry in a survey earlier this year. It established that there are now approximately 1,000 companies in the Canadian UAS sector, dominated by companies with less than 10 employees, but also including several large companies (over 100 employees) with UAS operations integral to their businesses

Commercial revenues in 2016 were estimated to be $500 million, with a remarkable 60 per cent revenue growth anticipated in 2017. Anecdotally, these predictions appear to bearing out. Notably, these operations are all undertaken within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS). If Beyond VLOS operations are approved, revenue growth of 100 per cent is expected for 2018.

In addition to capacity growth, the industry is clearly becoming established along vertical segments such as surveying and mapping, precision agriculture, construction, mining and the film industry as major examples. This trend is expected to accelerate with BVLOS operations, as agriculture scales into millions of hectares surveyed, and major infrastructure owners such as the electrical utilities, oil and gas companies and railways start implementing UAS capabilities.

The best practices under which VLOS operations have been undertaken have generated almost 10,000 Special Flight Operations Certificate approvals by Transport Canada (TC). This has also resulted in 2,300 commercial UAS pilots having been trained in Canada in the past 12 months to TC requirements. This year, after 10 years of collaboration by Unmanned Systems Canada (USC) with TC, we reached the milestone event of proposed regulations for Small UAS being published in Canada Gazette One for public comment.

This decade of effort, however has been hampered by a lack of capacity at TC to move forward with Beyond VLOS and larger UAS policy and regulatory issues, including wider concepts such as Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). Fortunately, the 2017 federal budget allocated new funds to TC to address both UAS and automated vehicles regulatory progress. By the end of this year, TC will have a 30-strong cross-disciplinary UAS Task Force, which will now have the capacity and focus to accelerate the pace of progress.

Fortunately, TC has now approved two UAS test ranges in Foremost, Alta., and Alma, Que. for BVLOS operations. These facilities will not only be critical for a number of Canadian OEMs coming to market in 2017 with BVLOS-capable larger UAS, but also for international operators and OEMs who do not have ready access to such airspace. As a result, 2017 has seen an upsurge in export promotion of the Canadian UAS industry, and increasing dialogue internationally with foreign companies wishing to do business and invest in Canada.

The upcoming year is expected to see the beginning of a substantive body of knowledge with BVLOS operations, in terms of technologies, business and safety cases. This will enable industry to provide TC with evidence-based proposal for regulations for operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight and in non-segregated airspace.

These are many challenges, which lie ahead to ensure that the Canadian UAS industry is able to develop its expertise at a pace that outmarches our global competitors, and allows us to gain a substantive share of an international market that will be valued at $100 billion-plus. Canada’s expansive geography, challenging climates and global depth of expertise in disciplines such as mining, agriculture and surveying, built upon a strong aeronautical history and export focus only point to many successes in the near future.


Mark Aruja is the Chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada.


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