Does Your Drone Have a ‘Remote’? Canada’s Definition of Autonomous Operations is a Scene out of Chappie

Chappie, the new robo-film on the block, takes place in Johannesburg, where the police force is made up of robots. In one of the early scenes, the main characters, Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi take part in a drug deal that is raided by robot cops. Hoping to avoid a similar fate in their next deal, Yolandi suggests that they find the robots’ remote so that they can switch them off like TV sets. Do the robots have a remote, and do Ninja and Yolandi find it? No spoilers here, but let’s take up the underlying question in the context of drone regulations…

What is Canada’s position on autonomous and automated operations? Well, does your drone have a ‘remote’? If it does, according to Transport Canada, it is not an autonomous drone. Transport Canada defines an autonomous drone as one that does “not allow pilot intervention in the management of the flight.” It is not enough for an autonomous drone to be capable of self-governance, rather it must not allow for any possibility of human intervention.

What about drones that have a remote but can complete automated tasks such as take-offs or landings or that can execute pre-defined waypoint operations? Transport Canada distinguishes these drones from autonomous drones by pointing to the fact that they require operator initiation or intervention.

Although there is no express prohibition, truly autonomous operations are outside of the scope of Canada’s current regulations. For the time being, if your drone doesn’t have a remote, you wouldn’t be able to operate. Our framework permits operations that involve automation, but it requires that an operator have the capability to intervene – or rather, as Ninja and Yolandi would hope, your flying robot must have a remote.

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How Canada Handles Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight Drone Operations

The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) proposes to restrict operations that are completed beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS). However, the FAA has invited comments regarding the proposed BVLOS restriction.

In Canada, BVLOS operations are not yet mainstream, however they are attainable under the Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) system. Transport Canada’s Staff Instruction 623-001 establishes the following conditions for BVLOS operations:

• BVLOS flights cannot take place outside of restricted airspace, unless the operator can mitigate risk to an acceptable level i.e. through the use of ground-based radar
• BVLOS flights must not be conducted over populated areas
• BVLOS flights must be conducted in visual meteorological conditions
• BVLOS flights cannot be conducted within controlled airspace
• BVLOS flights can only be conducted within 5 nautical miles of the point of departure
• The take-off and landing/recovery must be conducted within visual line-of-sight
• Direct radio line-of-sight capability must be maintained throughout the operating area

Canada is not alone in having established conditions for BVLOS operations. In fact, quite a few jurisdictions have more advanced regulations for BVLOS operations, including Australia, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Israel and Poland. As stakeholders submit comments to the FAA over the next two months, it’s important to look at how other jurisdictions are managing risk in BVLOS operations.

Canada’s Approach to Risk Management for Nighttime Drone Flights

The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) limits SUAS operations to daylight hours. The FAA concedes that the restriction on nighttime flights may negatively impact the ability to use SUAS in northern regions such as Alaska that have very few hours of daylight during winter months. The FAA has invited stakeholders to comment on how risk may be mitigated in the course of nighttime operations. Here is a breakdown of the Canadian approach to risk management for nighttime flights…

In Canada, nighttime operations are possible under the Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) system. Transport Canada’s Staff Instruction 623-001 outlines the following conditions for nighttime operations:

• If the UAV has lights, the lights must be on during night flights
• If the UAV does not have lights, there must be a means of illumination that would enable visual contact with the UAV
• The crew must have a portable emergency light source available
• The pilot must not have visual limitation of depth perception, colour blindness or problems seeing at night
• Visual observers providing the sense and avoid function (i.e. where the pilot is using FPV) cannot use night vision goggles

Transport Canada further states that if light emitting diodes (LEDs) are used to satisfy the lighting requirement for nighttime operations, the LEDs must have sufficient intensity to enable the pilot or visual observer and other airspace users to have visual contact with the UAV.