OHS Canada Magazine

Feature

The Drone Wars

Unmanned air vehicles are no longer the stuff of science-fiction. Drones are the latest gadgets sharing the airspace with planes today. And there are few barriers to launching a drone that could come into the path of a commercial jet or a towering crane, posing some serious safety concerns.


Last August, a Seair seaplane narrowly avoided disaster as it was landing just south of Vancouver International Airport, when a black, four-propeller drone nearly collided with it, coming about three metres from the plane’s windshield. Less than two weeks later, eight helicopters and six skimmers were fighting wildfires near Oliver, British Columbia, when they were grounded by a drone flying in the area. That was the second reported instance last summer in which a drone had endangered firefighting vehicles in the province.

Drones, also known as unmanned air vehicles (UAV), are small aircraft without human pilots onboard, usually controlled by remote or by computers. In recent years, UAVs have become more common in Canadian airspace, not only due to recreational users, but also as part of commercial applications. The drone industry has grown so quickly that there has been barely sufficient lead time for industry, users and regulators to deal with the associated safety issues.

“The way to do that would be some type of regulation and education,” says Bernard Gervais, president of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association in Ottawa. But everything is moving too fast, he adds. Before the proliferation of low-cost drones, the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC) offered safety guidelines for users of model planes. “Now it is drones and UAVs and people in their backyards, so the industry is trying to catch up with that.”

Despite a number of close calls, reported instances of drone collisions with manned aircraft have been scarce to date. But the main problem with drones in airspace, Gervais explains, is how difficult it is to know they are even there. Not only are they small and hard to spot; aircraft cannot detect them by radar.

“We don’t see them until the last minute, and they can’t see us,” unless a ground operator is using some kind of visual reference to avoid the plane, Gervais says.

Game of drones

A UAV can be the size of a book or as large as a small plane, and the potential range of applications for them in both the private and public sectors is just as wide. Law enforcement in this country has already employed drones to take aerial photographs and videos of crime scenes and traffic accidents or to assist in search-and-rescue operations, according to Drones in Canada, a March 2013 report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Gatineau, Quebec. Commercial operations can use them to inspect power and gas lines or to monitor infrastructure and natural resources from an overhead view. Even online bookstore Amazon has experimented with delivering packages to customers in Canada via drones.

Bryan Micon, chief technology officer with Drones Plus, a Las Vegas-headquartered UAV retail company with locations in Toronto and Vancouver, says real-estate companies make up a large market for Phantom and Inspire drones with aerial cameras these days. Clients often want a bird’s-eye photograph or video of a property before they consider buying it.

Similarly, roofers sometimes use camera-equipped UAVs as a safer way to check roofs for damage. Some roof inspectors have realized that instead of having to climb on a ladder and walk onto a roof to see what is wrong, they can simply launch an aerial camera within 30 seconds and take a look. “They are not risking a man,” Micon says.

Another occasional customer is firefighters, who sometimes use aerial infrared cameras to detect hotspots in burning buildings. “So firefighters show up, launch a drone; it has got an infrared package on it, and they are looking at the roof, they are looking at the walls that they can’t really see, and they will determine whether it is safe,” Micon describes.

In other situations, an employer may use drones to avoid sending workers into hazardous environments like confined spaces or battle zones. “If you were to do an inspection of a very large dam, you might use a drone because you would be safer to use a drone to take those pictures than have someone do it,” says Josh LeBrun, president and chief executive of Toronto-based safety-software firm eCompliance. “It is easier to control the risks that the drone would bring up than it would be to control the human risks.”

Getting instant feedback from an inspecting drone in real time, via the Internet or another method of instantaneous communication, can enable a company to make quicker and more informed decisions on safety improvement, LeBrun adds. “In the past, if you were to use a person to inspect any sort of piece of equipment, you had to have that person do the inspection, take that inspection information, get it back to a person that can make a decision, and all of that time in between is time lost.”

But there is always the possibility of an employer’s safety intentions backfiring. “If you are going to use that drone and put that drone in a precarious situation where it may have a negative effect on the operations of the dam or any other type of equipment that you are inspecting, then you might be creating more havoc than good,” LeBrun cautions.

To a large extent, the safety of drone deployment depends on the amount of training and knowledge the user has. Unfortunately, this varies to a dangerous degree because many people remain unaware of the hazards, according to David Tisseur, a chief pilot, safety operator and certified thermographer with Canadian Drone Services in North Bay, Ontario. Tisseur recalls witnessing an incident in which a man launched a drone that went out of control.

“He literally stuck it close to a bell tower, radio tower, and this thing just went for a run, because it just got impeded with a tonne of radio signals. The drone itself didn’t know what to do,” he says. “This guy didn’t understand that he should have had shielding on his equipment.”

Tisseur adds that many drone sellers endanger the public by exploiting uneducated consumers. “Far too many people out there are buying these things and throwing them into the air, and I mean they are literally throwing them in the air and not understanding the equipment that they have, the regulations that they are supposed to operate under — even the human element, the people that they are flying overtop of.”

Blinded by the flight

In the aviation system, UAVs present the most recent example of how people on the ground can unwittingly interfere with pilots, apart from model airplanes and shining lasers at aircraft. Steve Oakley, Guelph-based interim manager of Ontario’s western region for safety-consultancy organization Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, is well aware of the risks.

“Drones are just another of these sorts of things that could interfere with aviation. It just happens to be new on the horizon,” says Oakley, who is also a pilot. He compares them to radio-controlled helicopters, with one exception: drones are more widely available to the public. “If you tried to fly a radio-controlled helicopter, you would crash the thing before you would cause any damage to anybody if you didn’t know what you were doing. Whereas a drone, the problem is that it is fairly stable in relation to a radio-controlled helicopter.”

Oakley adds that flight interference is a danger more common in urban areas. “Now we have got urban areas with population and a new form of interference which has been introduced, and there are a lot of people that are experimenting with drones.”

Most manufacturers equip drones with some kind of failsafe application that can bring a UAV back to its home base in risky circumstances, and new technologies to improve failsafe apps are in the experimental stage now, according to Micon.

“If an emergency vehicle is flying in the air, then they can turn on something that essentially jams drone communication,” he explains. “They will safely, slowly land, and I think for law enforcement, for search-and-rescue, that would be an incredibly useful tool.” Jamming a drone’s communication will send it home, Micon says, “but if you are jamming its GPS signals as well, it will simply land wherever it is.”

Gervais does not rule out the possibility that manufacturers may design UAVs in a way that would enable aircraft to detect them in the future, although this is mere technological speculation. “Anything is possible in the next few years, and it would obviously be nice to be able to see these things or sense or perceive them,” he says. “But I don’t think that would be anytime soon.”

For now, many pilots have to rely on their eyes, rather than their instruments, to spot wayward drones. But Gervais is more concerned about the dangers posed by recreational drone users than by business ones, who tend to receive more training. Commercial users, he presumes, are “probably a little more by the book, and they know what they need to do, and they know what the airspace is — or they should.”

Playing by the rules

In October 2014, Transport Canada (TC) released safety guidelines on the use of drones for work and research purposes. Every company or individual who intends to use a UAV for occupational reasons must have a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) if the vehicle has a mass of 25 kilograms or more. Detailed SFOC exemptions are available for UAVs between two and 25 kg. These exemptions involve meeting strict safety conditions, including weight limits and minimum distances from people, buildings and airports.

TC warns users not to fly drones within nine kilometres of any airport, heliport or aerodrome or within 150 metres of any people, animals, structures or other vehicles. It is also unsafe to fly a UAV higher than 90 metres above the ground or near populated areas and large crowds. Drones can distract drivers and interfere with the work of first responders, and they are not permitted within restricted and controlled airspace. As well, TC advises users to limit drone flights to clear weather and to the daytime (unless the vehicle is equipped with proper nighttime lighting and operates under specified procedures) and to keep UAVs within eyesight.

“Using a UAV in a reckless and negligent manner could cause property damage or bodily harm, resulting in lawsuits, fines and jail time,” warns TC senior media-relations advisor Natasha Gauthier from Ottawa. “Anyone who violates controlled or restricted airspace and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could face fines of up to $25,000 and/or prison. This applies to any size of UAV, used for any purpose.”

In addition, Gauthier says, a company that requires an SFOC, but flies a drone without one, could face a fine as high as $25,000. A business could also face a fine of up to $15,000 if it has an SFOC, but fails to follow its individual requirements. “For example, their SFOC says they can only fly during daylight hours and they are caught flying at night.”

Gervais believes that the basic TC guidelines are adequate as far as airspace is concerned. “But can they be enforced?” he asks. “Do people respect that?” He agrees that reckless use of drones that could cause airspace collision should be treated as a criminal offence with appropriate penalties. “Possibility of causing harm to an aircraft is also in the Criminal Code,” he says, noting that any UAV interference with an aircraft could damage the plane, bring it down and cause fatalities. “Even a small drone.”

LeBrun predicts that TC’s guidelines and rules will become stricter with time. “They are a work in progress,” he says. “If you have situations that are causing high risk to people or to equipment, you may find more regulations are put in place, especially if companies themselves are not putting those restrictions in place without the use of government regulations.”

To Tisseur, there is room for improvement in the drone guidelines, but he fears that significant changes are unlikely without users learning harsh lessons first. “The sad thing is, it does take a fatality or somebody getting hurt before everybody stops and says, ‘Hey, listen, we have got to step up.’”

But changes are already in the planning stages, according to Gauthier. A recent Notice of Proposed Amendment from TC is exploring options regarding drones weighing 25 kg or less operated within the user’s line of sight. “Proposed changes include marking and registration requirements, new flight rules, as well as knowledge testing, minimum age limits and permits for UAV operators,” Gauthier says.

A Near-Disaster

The safety issues presented by unmanned air vehicles (UAV) may stretch further than most people imagine. “I know of far too many near misses that had the potential of being a catastrophic failure that the outcome would have affected many lives, as well as a debt load that most people would not be able to recover from,” says David Tisseur, a chief pilot, safety operator and certified thermographer with Canadian Drone Services in North Bay, Ontario.

Tisseur cites an incident that occurred in Hardisty, Alberta. A large energy company hired a drone firm from Ottawa to inspect a vaporous-gas leak in a distribution/storage pumping station by using a UAV equipped with a thermal imaging camera. The operator was watching the drone while standing on a high pile of skids. At one point, the operator jumped to the ground and accidentally cut off the drone’s power on the remote, sending the vehicle toppling to the ground in a fiery crash.

What could have made this incident far more disastrous was the explosive potential of both the drone and the environment. “The drone was equipped with two lithium ion batteries with an unknown weight,” explains Tisseur, noting the “extremely aggressive ferocity” of the fire in the wreckage. Meanwhile, the pumping station that the UAV had been inspecting was storing nearly 13 million barrels of crude oil.

“The potential of making a crater to Mother Earth was very high that day,” he suggests, speculating about the loss of life and property and an environmental cleanup that would take years — an insurance company’s nightmare. “That town was very lucky that day, and no one was even aware of it.”

Tisseur feels that in order to ensure safer use, the operation of drones requires more standardized training and testing, including a minimum number of logged flight hours. “There is a strong need for accountability and responsibility, training and certification,” he stresses, citing the analogy that someone who buys a hammer does not automatically become a carpenter.

“The sad thing is, it will take a loss of life before Transport Canada will be granted the authority to start putting penalties to these companies.”

Risk awareness

In the absence of more detailed, specific legislation about drone safety, Oakley advises companies to adopt a risk-based approach for drones, not unlike the risk assessments one would conduct for other potentially hazardous situations.

“Think of the drone as any other workplace apparatus, like a crane or a forklift truck,” he advises. “Companies will definitely want to look at what is responsible in terms of training, education and operating qualifications for the use of drones.”

If the employer does not require an SFOC for the particular size or type of UAV, the company is morally obligated to determine what responsible behaviour looks like regarding the vehicle’s use. And that includes asking questions like how companies can get ahead of regulatory requirements that are still pending, Oakley recommends.

He compares the current situation with drones to that with workplace cell phones and distracted driving, before legislation preventing cell-phone use while operating motor vehicles came into being. Typically, when new technology becomes available and common, “it gets put into the workplace in the absence of any kind of legislation or really thorough guidelines that may be coming,” Oakley says. In the case of cell phones, “most workplaces were defaulting to, ‘What does the law say?’ instead of, ‘What is the risk of people using this technology in the workplace?’”

In the meantime, action to raise awareness of safe drone operation is underway. For example, Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, a flight school near the Waterloo International Airport in Breslau, Ontario, offers a full three-day course for individuals intending to use UAVs for commercial or research purposes. Instructed by Kitchener-based drone expert Scott Gray, the course covers the TC requirements, SFOCs, navigation, air law, aeronautics and more. Completion of the course grants the individual a restricted radio licence as well as practical flying experience and guidance.

Other organizations that advocate for safe drone use include Unmanned Systems Canada, which lobbied for improved TC regulations at its annual conference in Halifax in November, and MAAC, which now includes a UAV advisory group among its committees. For recreational users, the Ontario Provincial Police has recently launched an information campaign on safe UAV operation in northeastern Ontario, and the Calgary Police Service put out a press release reiterating the TC drone rules on January 7.

Micon notes that Drones Plus has always invested in free public education programs about drone safety. Attendees do not even have to buy or own a UAV to take part. Among the major lessons that Micon’s company teaches is never to impede aircraft putting out wildfires, or any other kind of police or medical craft in particular. “If I see a fire truck driving down the road, I am not going to stand in front of it with my cell phone and try to take a picture of it.”

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has estimated that more than one million drones were sold over the 2015 Christmas season. Whether flown by hobbyists or by occupational users, drones in the skies will only increase in number. This makes it more compelling for laws about operating them safely to be strengthened.

Until that happens, Micon thinks that it is wise to “just learn everything about your craft and then take any lessons from any professionals to fly as safe as possible.”

Jeff Cottrill is editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.