Jeff Bezos set the world on its ear in December 2013 when he coyly asked Charlie Rose of CBS’ 60 Minutes if he would like to see something. Replying in the affirmative, Rose was then led into the depths of Amazon’s very own skunkworks and thus Amazon’s Prime Air drone program was unveiled to the world. In a world that had been watching the increasing use of large UAVs in military and intelligence gathering missions in the world’s hot spots, Amazon brought the concept of UAV/drone down to the personal level – the idea that one day YOU would have packages delivered to you by a drone. It certainly captured imaginations around the world and garnered more free publicity for Amazon than can be imagined.
What’s in a name? Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Remotely Piloted Vehicle or drone. For this article, we will use the term “drone,” as it has been widely adopted by the mainstream media and the court of public opinion.
The military use of drones has become commonplace. The Canadian Forces was using Herons as observation vehicles in Afghanistan as well as operating the smaller Scan Eagle from RCN frigates on anti-piracy and interdiction patrols in the Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa. While the Herons and Scan Eagles were leased, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has placed outright acquisition of large UAVs on its top five list of must-haves, but that acquisition is a long way off as other projects such as the CF-18 replacement continue to lag.
There’s no doubt drones will become a reality in the domestic skies. The question will be a matter of how quickly this will occur and how well the integration will be managed. Blinded by technology and dreams of living in a George Jetson world, the public doesn’t realize that as far as drones are concerned, in the world of commercial aviation, we are not far removed from Kitty Hawk. We are looking at a market that extends from the multi-million dollar high-flying, mega-endurance remotely controlled drones that are operated from literally half a world away via satellite links, all the way down to small, hand-held models that are little more than toys and can be operated from an app on a smartphone. Industry groups are projecting annual revenues in billions of dollars in the near future, across the full spectrum, and this will definitely create pressure on regulators.
Working with industry, Transport Canada (TC) is working on the evolution of the regulatory process for drones in Canada by introducing improved guidance material for all operators and introducing exemptions from SFOC requirements for aircraft under 25 kg, while introducing more stringent regulations for more complex operations.
Stewart Baillie, chair of Unmanned Systems Canada characterized the changes in a press release as very positive, “balancing safety with practicality and owner responsibility . . . this approach will dramatically improve the ability for Canadian business to safely make use of this extremely capable technology while substantially reducing the time it takes to get authorizations for more complex operations.”
From the beginning, Canadian drone operators benefited from Special Flight Operations Standards included in the Canadian Aviation Regulations. Introduced before today’s drones were conceived, the regulations were intended to govern commercial balloon operators, parachute demonstrations, inspection flights and other events that were of a one-off nature. Drones fit quite nicely into the category of Miscellaneous Special Flight Operations.
The regulations in Canada and the U.S. are similar when it comes to the operation of small drones for what are deemed hobby or recreational flights, but the major difference between the two countries is that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been much slower to grant small operators the permits necessary to conduct commercial operations, testing or research on even the smallest scale. The result has been an increasing number of incidents across the U.S. and to a lesser degree in Canada, where drones are being operated contrary to regulations. There have been incursions into commercial air space and a number of other events that have caught the media’s eye.
Analyzing the Incidents
Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post spent a year compiling information on incidents involving military and civilian drones overseas and in the U.S. He waded through more than 50,000 pages of often heavily redacted documents and conducted scores of interviews that led to a comprehensive, multi-part series of articles that focused on what can go wrong with drones and the potential consequences.
In the U.S., hazardous occurrences are becoming more frequent as more drones – legal and illegal – take to the skies. As a matter of disclosure (or irony) it should be pointed out that the Washington Post was purchased by Bezos, or more accurately by his personal investment company Nash Holdings, in October 2013.
Whitlock pored over dozens of previously unreported crashes both inside and outside the U.S., questioning how safe is it to consider allowing drones to fly over populated area and in the same airspace as commercial aircraft. He found that causation in crashes could be linked to some fundamental reasons that apply to all levels of drone operations, from global military usage down to the backyard hobbyist.
- Drones have a limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone can’t fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears. Most large drones are not (currently) equipped with radar or anti-collision systems.
- Pilot error. Flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The U.S. military trains its drone pilots extensively, but mistakes still happen. In one incident over Afghanistan, a Predator crashed because the pilot did not realize the drone was flying upside down. A common problem for operators of small drones flying within visual range is the concept of reversing left and right when turning the drone around to return. It’s more commonly known as the “other left.”
- Mechanical defects. Early large military drone models were designed without redundant safety features and rushed into service. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather.
- Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, whether by satellite for global military operations or Wi-Fi or smartphone app for the smallest civilian models. These connections can be fragile and can be interrupted or simply lost for a number of reasons. Concern has been raised from a number of sources as to the vulnerability of all classes of drones to outside manipulation or “hacking.”
Whitlock enumerated scores of Class A incidents (damage in excess of $2 million) with American military drones, but three that occurred within the continental U.S. and involved close or actual interaction with civilians stand out. In April 2014, a 400-pound RQ-7 Shadow, narrowly missed an elementary school in Lebanon County, Pa., when it crashed through the school garden and was then run over by a civilian vehicle driving down the street in front of the school, which had already let out for the day. Local officials were “surprised” to learn that Shadows were routinely operated out of a nearby airbase and that the school was under the flight path.
In November 2013, a MQ-9 Reaper crashed in Lake Erie after a rapid descent from 18,000 feet. Operated by the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing it was on a training mission at the time. The crash was ultimately blamed on multiple failures in the GPS and inertial guidance system, as well as loss of communication links. The flight was conducted in approved military air space over Lake Ontario.
In August 2010, a U.S. Navy MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter drone lost connection during a test flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, veering into restricted airspace around Washington, D.C. which rang bells at NORAD.
As fighters were being scrambled, its controllers were able to regain the satellite link and return the wayward drone safely
The smallest drones used to be within the domain of the radio-controlled (RC) aircraft enthusiasts, but as more makes and models of drones enter the market place and prices drop, more are being seen overhead in neighbourhoods across North America.Instances involving the misuse of these craft can range from the uneducated to the flagrantly disrespectful.
In 2014, TC logged 38 formal reports of drones encroaching on aircraft. A widely reported case in Vancouver last year featured a series of videos posted on YouTube of commercial airliners on final approach to YVR’s north runway. On at least one occasion the drone was spotted by air crew and reported to ATC.
In the U.S., commercial airliners have reported seeing drones in the skies over New York and Los Angeles. In July 2014, a New York Police helicopter was forced to take evasive action while hovering over the George Washington Bridge at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Officers reported two small drones circling and headed towards their helicopter, forcing police to change course to avoid a collision. The helicopter then followed the drones northbound up the Hudson River until they landed, at which point their operators were arrested by police on the ground. They have been charged with first-degree reckless endangerment. Also in New York, a Brooklyn man was fined $2,200 after his quadcopter bounced off two mid-town Manhattan skyscrapers before narrowly missing pedestrians as it smashed into the sidewalk.
In the U.K., a TV-repair shop owner became the first person convicted in the U.K. for actions related to flying his kit-built quad-copter. He was fined the equivalent of $7,900 after he lost control of his drone and it skimmed a local bridge before flying over a nuclear submarine base. In France, authorities have been unable to identify the person(s) responsible for flying small quadcopters over seven nuclear power plants.
Back in the U.K., Scotland Yard concluded their first such investigation in February of this year, laying 17 charges against a Nottingham man, accused of flying his small multi-rotor over crowded stadiums and public places after a series of videos were posted on YouTube.
Finally, back in the U.S, in January of this year, a small drone made an unscheduled appearance over the grounds of the White House, before crashing on the lawn. Given recent security breaches, Secret Service spokesmen were quick to point out that there had been no actual threat and that while officers on the ground had spotted the drone the moment it came on to the grounds there was little they could do. The operator of the drone revealed himself to be an employee of a federal intelligence agency. He had flown the drone from his apartment window several blocks from the White House, while inebriated.
Starting on the Ground Level
If drones are to create a commercial revolution in aviation, it is more likely to start at the bottom. It will start literally at ground level, as there are many opportunities for small drones or UAVs to be put to work. Drones will not replace helicopters, but rather perform services in places that helicopters can’t operate and at a much lower price point. The key to success for potential operators is understanding the regulations and getting it right from the beginning.
David Carlos of Victoria, B.C., has developed a second-chance career in aviation with his company, Victoria Aerial Photos and Survey.
Carlos was hoping to become a commercial pilot, but after getting his pilot’s license he realized, as many others have, that time and circumstances were not in his favour. He gave up on aviation, got on with his life and then one day about three years ago he saw a small UAV and a light went on. He remembers thinking, “they can go places and do things that a conventional aircraft can’t and as such are much more practical. They produce minimal noise disturbance and minimal disturbance to the environment or wildlife.”
He realized that he would need to use a multi-rotor which proved to be a huge learning curve and he suffered through many crashes as he was learning. Late in 2012, he launched his business and received an underwhelming response. A mail-out to every real estate agent in metro Victoria failed to generate as much as a single phone call in response. He persevered and one client led to another and today the business is his full-time job.
“I can’t believe how much I’ve learned and how much the equipment has evolved in this short time. It’s been a huge revelation.”
Two years along and while real estate is now a significant part of his business it’s become much more than just beauty shots of high-end houses. A developer planning a high-rise condo development in Victoria wants video of the actual view from each suite.
The B.C. government used Carlos’ services to exam the domed roof of the provincial legislature. Putting workmen on the steeply pitched and fragile roof would be time-consuming, dangerous and likely to cause damage. Carlos is now regularly receiving enquiries from roofing contractors, as the ability to use a drone to make a detailed, high-definition of a roof can be done in minutes instead of hours.
Now a champion of the commercial possibilities of drones, Carlos took another chance by offering a course that would enable prospective drone operators to meet TC’s requirements for Pilots of Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems under 25 kg. The course offers two days of classroom instruction and a third day of actually flying a machine. That first course was such a success, that he is now offering one course a month and is prepared to add a second instructor if demand continues
Students have come from a complete cross-section of the community and he is proud to report that every graduate of his program that has applied for a SFOC
has received one.
TC says that no matter what you call your aircraft, be it drone, UAV or whatever, you are expected to operate safely and legally. All you need to know can be found at www.tc.gc.ca/safetyfirst
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