Seeing is Not Always Believing: Update on Drones Flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability in processes that rely on the interaction of people. As such, 2020 has provided the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) industry with a spotlight to demonstrate its capabilities at providing safe alternatives to traditional delivery, surveillance and inspection services.
 
As discussed in our January 2019 Blakes Bulletin: Drones: A New Way Forward, at the beginning of 2019, Transport Canada enacted new RPAS regulations relating to the operations of RPAS within visual line of sight (VLOS). While these new regulations were a welcome addition to the industry, they fell short of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. The federal regulations still require that all BVLOS operations require operators to follow the cumbersome Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) process.
 
Notwithstanding the time consuming and detail oriented SFOC process, many in the industry continue to push forward with BVLOS operations. In-Flight Data received a one-year SFOC for BVLOS to monitor assets such as pipelines, powerlines and coastlines. In addition, companies like Canada Post and Drone Delivery Canada obtained SFOCs to permit the delivery of packages, food and medical supplies to remote locations in Canada, and companies like Canadian UAV and ING Robotic Aviation obtained SFOCs for pipeline and infrastructure surveys, all on a BVLOS basis. MVT Geo-Solutions, in partnership with Iris Automation, obtained SFOCs, in part, based on their onboard detect-and-avoid system, for BVLOS operations within the UAS Center of Excellence’s controlled airspace RPAS test range in Alma, Quebec. These industry stakeholders are establishing both the business case and the technological ability to undertake BVLOS operations. As such, regulations are required to enable the RPAS industry to respond to client needs in real time.
 
Transport Canada is aware of the frustrations of the RPAS industry and previously committed to developing BVLOS regulations which address these needs. In recognition of this commitment, Transport Canada recently released a proposal of regulatory amendments, which relate to the following:

1. EXPANSION OF THE EXISTING VLOS FRAMEWORK

The existing VLOS framework would apply to the following operations:

  • RPAS with a weight between 250 g to 25 kg in Uncontrolled Airspace above 400 feet above ground level (AGL)
  • RPAS with a weight between 25 kg to 150 kg in Basic Operations, Near People and Over People (with increased standoff distances), in Controlled Airspace and over 400 feet AGL Uncontrolled Airspace
  • RPAS with a weight between 50 kg to 650 kg in Basic Operations above 400 feet AGL

Currently, these type of VLOS operations require an SFOC.

2. IMPLEMENTATION OF A LOWER-RISK BVLOS FRAMEWORK

Currently, Transport Canada has allowed BVLOS operations in two categories: isolated areas and atypical airspace, and isolated areas and uncontrolled airspace, with scaled requirements based on the complexity of the BVLOS operation. The scope of these amendments will only cover lower risk operations, such as delivery of supplies to remote communities, first responder operations, natural resources and wildlife surveys, and infrastructure inspections. The proposed amendments would allow the following BVLOS operations without an SFOC:

  • RPAS with a weight between 250 g to 25 kg in Isolated Areas, within one kilometre of an area with a population of more than 25 people per square kilometre; over an area with a population density of more than 25 people per square kilometre; and, in controlled airspace
  • RPAS with a weight between 25 kg to 150 kg BVLOS operations in Isolated Areas, and within one kilometre of an area with a population of more than 25 people per square kilometre
  • RPAS with a weight between 150 kg to 650 kg BVLOS operations in Isolated Areas with a maximum altitude of 400 feet AGL

While these regulations do not attempt to regulate complex BVLOS operations, like package deliveries in densely populated centres, Transport Canada has signaled that they will be used as a building block for subsequent amendments which will address such complexities.
 
Depending on feedback from industry stakeholders, Transport Canada plans to pre-publish the amendments in spring 2021, which will allow for a subsequent comment period. While much of Canada is on hold this year, the RPAS industry can enjoy this move forward.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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