The federal government has launched a public campaign to help an increasing number of Canadians fly drones safely, though documents show many would-be pilots are facing lengthy delays in getting permission to send the popular unmanned aircraft buzzing skyward.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt kicked off the campaign Tuesday in Toronto, reminding operators of legal restrictions on drone use, such as keeping at least eight kilometres away from airports and not hovering above 90 metres.
"How I explain it to my kids is, it's heavy, it's going to be up high in the air – if it falls out of the air and hits somebody on the head it's actually dangerous. So safety really does matter, it's as simple as that," she told reporters at a downtown store while flanked by a pair of sleek white quadcopters.
The safety push – featuring a website guide and forthcoming online ad and social media blitz – also highlights that commercial operators and those flying aircraft with a takeoff weight of more than 35 kilograms need a special certificate from Transport Canada before they get their rotors spinning. If they launch without one, they can be fined up to $25,000.
However, many certificate-seekers can't get their devices even an inch off the ground as they're at times forced to wait several months for approval and mail the regulator a thick bundle of supporting material, internal documents reveal.
Briefing notes obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information show that while Transport Canada has a 20-business-day target for approval of the drone certificates, bureaucrats can take up to four months to get through the paperwork.
"Transport Canada is facing an ever-growing demand for SFOCs, making it difficult to respond to applications in a timely manner," reads a note sent to Raitt earlier this year. In 2013 the regulator issued 945 certificates – a 500 per cent jump from 2011.
While noting that most of the regulator's offices can hit the 20-day mark, "processing times can be significantly longer if the applicant is missing required information (a frequent occurrence), or is for a complex UAV operation."
It added: "With regional offices receiving an ever-increasing number of requests, in some cases it takes up to 120 days to process the application from the date of receipt."
In some cases, applicants are required to hand over a doorstopper of documents, at times "up to 85 pages of technical summary and 1,900 pages of reference materials."
Raitt said civil servants are doing their best to turn the applications around quickly.
"A lot of it will have to do with winnowing down and thinning out that application process. And to be fair, in all honesty, we have not seen this increase in permitting permissions being sought before. So this is something that's really taken hold in the last year."
When asked about any specific measures being brought in to help speed up the process, she said only that applicants facing delays should contact her office or their local MP.
"I think they should absolutely make us aware that they're having concerns," she said.
Once limited to the military or the world of sci-fi, unmanned air vehicles have now hit the mainstream, can be purchased from a few hundred dollars for personal aircraft up to $200,000 for commercial grade units and operated with a controller or by tablet or iPhone. And they're being used for a range of purposes – from hobbyists to farmers surveying crops and even movie productions looking for an epic aerial shot.
Ottawa has had regulations on the books covering UAVs since 1996, but is in the process of more closely tailoring them to the rapidly advancing devices, something documents state may not be fully finished until 2017.
And while some lessons from that process are being implemented in the meantime, a briefing note to Raitt from late last year poured cold water on them expediting new certificates.
"New applicants and individuals without an established history and expertise will not benefit from these changes as they will remain subject to the standard approval process, that is, they will require a more substantial review," it reads.
"Overall, however, workload reductions will allow TC to improve processing time."