Canada’s air force has determined that unlike its counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, it does not need approval from civilian aviation agencies to fly drones in domestic airspace and it will operate those unmanned planes as it sees fit, according to newly released Department of National Defence documents.
But the air force acknowledges that flying the drones in domestic airspace shared by civilian jetliners and other aircraft will be challenging.
The issue of whether to allow unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs — to operate in domestic airspace is currently being hotly debated in Europe. In June, Germany’s defence officials were accused of wasting more than $1 billion after they purchased long-range UAVs, only to be told by the European Aviation Safety Agency that the aircraft would not be allowed to fly in Europe. The aircraft did not have a proper collision-avoidance system, the safety agency determined.
The debate was further fuelled by the leak last month of two videos to German news outlets. One showed a German military UAV almost colliding with a passenger jet over Kabul, Afghanistan; the other showed German military personnel fleeing from an out-of-control Heron UAV, also in Afghanistan. The Heron later slammed into a military transport plane sitting on the runway.
The Heron is the same type of drone the Canadian military leased for its Afghanistan operations.
Royal Canadian Air Force planners examining the proposed purchase of UAVs predicted back in 2011 that flying drones in commercial airspace would become an issue, but noted they didn’t have to worry. The RCAF doesn’t need approval from Transport Canada or NAV Canada to fly the aircraft domestically, according to the documents obtained by the Citizen through the Access to Information law.
“DND is the legal regulator for all military aircraft in Canada and does not require any TC or NAV Canada approval to operate a UAV in Canadian domestic airspace,” the documents note.
The RCAF pointed out that the Canadian situation is very different from Europe and the U.S., where civilian agencies set the rules. The air force concluded that it saw no significant risks to routine operation of UAVs in Canada.
But the briefing note also added, that “in the domestic environment in both high-use and uncongested airspace regions the employment of military unmanned aircraft will provide greater challenges.”
The Conservative government wants to purchase a fleet of up to 18 medium-altitude UAVs for the RCAF. No specific costs have been released but the project’s price tag is estimated to be over $1.5 billion.
The solution to operating in civilian airspace will be based on air traffic management and collision and avoidance systems, the RCAF has determined. “An autonomous ‘sense and avoid’ capability will be pursued to permit ever increasing access to Canadian Airspace,” the briefing added.
Such technology would allow UAVs to automatically avoid mid-air collisions.
Capt. Holly-Anne Brown of the RCAF noted in an email sent Thursday to the Citizen that while aerospace firms are working on a sense and avoid system for UAVs, that is not considered an essential requirement for the Canadian military’s planned purchase of such aircraft.
“The RCAF has procedures in place that will ensure the safe operation of any UAVs we operate,” she added.
Access to airspace for any of the Canadian Forces unmanned aerial vehicles “will be conducted in a deliberate and coordinated fashion, and through incremental steps, to ensure the safety of all airspace users,” Brown also stated.
In addition, there is significant co-ordination between the military and Transport Canada and Nav Canada, she added.
But Steve Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, says the debate in Europe raises serious concerns about UAV flight safety in Canada. “It’s one thing to be flying a drone over the desert in Afghanistan but it’s something else to fly them over Ottawa or Toronto,” said Staples, who is spearheading a campaign against the military’s purchase of armed UAVs.
He said the lack of civilian safety oversight could lead to an accident in the future.
Staples pointed out that the 2011 report from the military’s flight-safety branch acknowledged 10 Canadian UAV crashes between 2007 and 2010. Most of those happened in Kandahar, Afghanistan and involved engine failures. Since the early 2000s, there have been 42 accidents involving Canadian Forces UAVs.
While the military conducted experiments with UAVs in domestic airspace in 2004, the RCAF briefing note pointed out that, “Nowhere was civilian approval or permission required or sought.”
Although Canadian Forces UAVs do not routinely operate outside their restricted airspace at this point, that constraint is entirely self-imposed by the military, it added.
Some police forces in Canada operate small UAVs but need special permission from Transport Canada to fly them.