April 27, 2015
Should we embrace a future where food delivery drones buzz through our skies bearing pizza payloads for their waiting customers?
These questions are more pressing than you think. While drones are primarily known for their military applications, many companies are doing research and development on commercial drones, also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles.” We have already seen commercial drones used to deliver beers at a South African music festival, tacocopters and burritobombers preparing to serve California, and Amazon looking to deliver just about anything in 30 minutes or less. It’s not only delivery — commercial drones are in active use for surveying, monitoring agriculture, and other applications.
The biggest limitation on the growth of commercial drones is not actually the technology — it’s the regulatory environment. While the U.S. is in the process of developing a new set of rules to allow civilian drones, current restrictions make it difficult to even run test or pilot(less) projects.
In Canada we have a much more welcoming landscape. There are a broad set of exemptions for small aircraft, where you are expected to follow a set of rules but not required to get permits beforehand. If you can’t meet those restrictions, you can apply for special exemptions. It’s the ability to get these exemptions that has reportedly lured Amazon’s delivery drone testing away from their U.S. headquarters to BC.
This is a good news story. Our governments spend a lot of time thinking about how to attract investment in high-tech jobs. We offer tax breaks and subsidies to companies, invest in research and training at universities and colleges that will produce the next wave of tech talent, and have even created government venture capital funds to support innovative firms. An equally important — and far simpler — part of the investment equation hinges on a supportive regulatory environment. This was a perspective embraced by Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt when she recently said that “we have a wealth of experience and we certainly want to keep up with the times.”
Embracing freedom to innovate doesn’t mean simply allowing a wild west. In Canada there are still a number of rules in place and you need special waivers to fly a test anywhere near people or buildings. Fines for breaking those rules are steep. Nonetheless, to date a clear operating environment and responsive and flexible regulator has been key in attracting investment. Transport Canada has been proactive in spreading the word, through its twitter account, infographics, and engaging with industry on a case-by-case basis for rapidly-evolving technology. Though in other areas Transport Canada’s regulatory approach has been sluggish and has created unintentional barriers to competitiveness, they deserve credit in this case for a forward-thinking but measured approach. Cities like Toronto that are looking at their own rules around drones should take their cues from the federal government on this file.
A clear operating environment and responsive and flexible regulator has been key in attracting investment.
There are many tricky questions ahead before we can order our lunches from the tacocopter. What should safety standards be and how will liability issues be managed? How can we protect privacy if there are drones capable of filming and eavesdropping on us? What kind of pilot licence should you need for different kinds of aircraft? How should the shared public nature of the sky be prioritized to avoid unseemly noise pollution? Might drones mitigate congestion by taking delivery vehicles off the road in urban areas?
We simply don’t know enough about how to answer these questions to start designing prescriptive regulations that could stifle innovation and still fail to protect other policy objectives. Instead of starting with strict rules, governments should create space for new models to emerge under a broader strategic operating framework that sets out positions on these questions and allows people developing the new technologies to find their own ways to meet those goals.
Canada’s relatively ‘drone-friendly’ approach is, unfortunately, not matched elsewhere in the country in the case of ridesharing, or even food trucks. That has not only a direct effect on innovation but also makes Canada a less attractive place to do business. Canada’s openness to innovation on drones is drawing positive attention from tech companies and media, and should be commended.
The U.K. government recently released a position paper on the sharing economy, recognizing the enabling role government can take in supporting innovation in the face of disruptive technologies and business models. This paper should serve as a best-in-class example for other governments on how to recognize an opportunity rather than react to a perceived threat. Canadian governments at all levels should consider doing the same for disruptive technology innovations.
Positioning Canada as a global innovation and technology leader means more than letting multinationals fly drones in our air-space before scaling up their investment and operations elsewhere. Governments across the country should think about how to unlock new platforms for innovation and look more broadly at how flexible regulatory models can be part of a plan to attract investment and promote experimentation.
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April 27, 2015