OTTAWA — A new toy under the tree this year is making Transport Canada nervous.
On Christmas morning, it’s expected thousands of drones will be unwrapped and take to the skies in test flights across the country, all piloted by newbie aviators.
With the “exponential” growth of the drone industry, the federal regulator wants to make sure the new pilots — and they are indeed pilots — know the rules and risks around operating their new machines.
“Our real concern given the growth in this industry is around the risk to aircraft in the air and to people on the ground,” said Aaron McCrorie, Transport Canada’s director general of civil aviation.
McCrorie said few recreational drone operators have any pilot training. “Ignorance is perhaps our biggest challenge. People don’t know what it means to operate safely,” he said in an interview.
The caution comes at the end of a year when commercial pilots have reported a growing number of worrisome encounters with drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
At times, they are just a nuisance. In early November, a “concerned citizen” in Cambridge reported a drone flying low overhead. “The drone was flying just below the street lights and over people’s heads and very close to residences,” according to a preliminary Transport Canada report.
But there have been some close calls, too.
• On Nov. 22, the pilots of a Bearskin airlines flight reported that a drone passed within three metres of their aircraft as they departed Waterloo airport.
• In July, the pilots of a Jazz airlines Dash 8 turboprop reported a near miss with a drone during their arrival at Edmonton International Airport. The crew initially thought it was another aircraft but as it passed below and to the left, the captain identified it as a UAV travelling in the opposite direction.
• In May, an Air Canada jet at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport deviated from its flight path to avoid a UAV flying directly in the busy departure route.
In August, water bombers fighting a forest fire in B.C. were grounded for several hours after a drone was spotted in the area.
Transport Canada has launched an awareness campaign to promote the safe operation of drones and make recreational owners aware of the rules governing their use.
But the growing popularity of drones for recreational use and commercial and research purposes also prompted Transport Canada earlier this year to propose draft regulations for their operation. The regulatory amendments set out the concern.
“As their popularity increases, so does interference with manned aircraft,” note the proposed rules, adding that there have already been reports of “reckless and negligent” use of UAVs.
In 2014, the department conducted 69 investigations into potentially illegal UAV flights. By the middle of 2015, they had 35 probes underway. As the year came to close, the department has levied fines totaling $3,350 against four operators for improper use of UAVs.
The proposed rules would set out required training and age restrictions, depending on the type of drone and where it would be flown.
For example, the rules don’t allow drone flights within nine kilometres of an airport, putting big parts of Toronto off limits because of the location of Pearson, Billy Bishop, Buttonville and Downsview airports.
The proposed rules would allow such flights but only if the drone operator met “rigorous regulatory requirements.”
“If you want to go for a lower standard, then you have to pretty much operate in a very rural, remote area where you’re not going to pose the same risk to people on the ground or aircraft in the air,” McCrorie said.
“If you’re going to operate in a higher risk environment, you need to meet a higher standard of regulatory requirements,” he said.
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration announced this month that owners of small unmanned aircraft weighing between 250 grams and about 25 kilograms would be required to register them with the government.
The U.S. government rolled out the new regulations before Christmas anticipating that “hundreds of thousands” of unmanned aircraft would be given as gifts.
“Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.