Drone-based businesses soar in Canada, as FAA grounds US entrepreneurs

When the producers of The Amazing Race decided to make a Canadian version of the reality TV show, they were delighted to discover that they could use unmanned aircraft to film teams of contestants scrambling from place to place.

In the U.S. that quite literally would not fly. Federal Aviation Administration rules forbid any commercial use of such drones, which can weigh under five pounds and offer new and useful opportunities for photography.

The result is that the Canadian approach, which is based on a simple permit system, is allowing hundreds of businesses to integrate the technology in a range of industries, while U.S. companies are grounded awaiting regulation.

A ticket to fly

In the United States, everyone from media organizations to photographers to search-and-rescue crews are in a legal dogfight with the Federal Aviation Administration over a controversial policy that says only hobbyists can use drones.

Photo by Funky Frog Stock/Shutterstock

Photo by Funky Frog Stock/Shutterstock

While the courts sort this out, the FAA continues to crack down on any business that flies them.

It works differently to the north. In Canada, anyone that wants to use a drone for commercial purposes simply asks the country’s aviation regulator for a permit to do so and, in most cases, receives one in 10 to 20 business days.

According to Maryse Durette, a spokesperson with Transport Canada, the government has granted nearly 1,500 “Special Flight Operations Certificates” in the last three years, including 945 in the year 2013 alone.

In order to receive one, an applicant must explain in detail how they intend to use the drone, and outline what precautions will be taken to fly it safely. After reviewing the application, and consulting with the business, the federal agency then issues a permit with a distinct set of stipulations tailored to that particular business.

The upshot is that there are now hundreds of companies and institutions in Canada that have made drones part of their day-to-day operations.

Drones on set and on the farm

Canada’s decision to set up a green-light system for commercial drone use came in 2010 as the government came to recognize an emerging aviation-based economy. Since then, companies large and small are gaining expertise in drone-related technology.

A startup called Resson Aerospace, for instance, is transforming drone footage into customized images and analytics for large agriculture companies:

Resson drone footage

CEO Peter Goggin said that the image represents an early version of its proprietary software, and that it is developing more sophisticated versions as it gains more experience working with drones and clients.

Farming is not the only industry that is supporting drone-based businesses, according to Transport Canada. The agency declined to provide a specific breakdown, but did name TV production, law enforcement and real estate photography as common examples of commercial drones usages.

All of this activity is not only intriguing from a photography and technology standpoint. It may also be giving Canada a first-mover advantage when it comes to the emerging drone economy. As the National Post reported last month, one Montreal-based start-up believes “Canadian startups have an advantage over their U.S. counterparts, because in that country drone use is illegal for commercial uses.”

Waiting for U.S. air support

The apparent success of the nascent Canadian drone industry raises the question of whether a similar permit-style system might work in the U.S.

“Drone operators in the United States would be happy to see a permit system that provides responsible companies with that kind of streamlined and efficient system for granting permits in safe work scenarios such as agriculture and the energy sector,” said Brendan Schulman, an aviation lawyer who is currently representing a number of the groups suing the FAA.

For now, however, the FAA is is still working on long overdue rules for integrating unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace. In the meantime, the agency is insisting its “guidelines,” which have been rejected by one administrative law judge, continue to apply.

The good news is that the FAA may finally getting its act in gear. In response to an email question about permits, a spokesperson did not refer to a Canadian-style system, but did suggest the burden on businesses would soon be lifted:

“We expect to publish a proposed rule on small unmanned aircraft before the end of this year. We can’t discuss specifics because the language isn’t finalized, but the rule will make a start on allowing more routine UAS operations.”

In the meantime, initiatives outside the FAA could also help break the regulatory log-jam. This month, for instance, it emerged that NASA and a San Francisco-based drone start-up, Airware, are working on a new air-traffic control system for unmanned aircraft.