By Brian Dunn

Remotely piloted aircraft or drones could become valuable, cost-effective tools for the shipping industry, according to a study prepared by law firm BLG. Drones offer a myriad of uses, including capture of aerial images of difficult passages, improving crew safety by identifying risks on board that may be difficult to access otherwise, locating hazards at sea and carrying small loads to and from vessels at anchor, among others. However, commercial drone operators must comply with new regulations from Transport Canada. One of the most significant changes under the new regulations is that all drones weighing between 250 grams and 25 kilograms must be registered and the registration number must be clearly visible on the drone.

Drones in excess of 25 kilos do not need to be registered, but require a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) which can be obtained from Transport Canada. An SFOC is also required for those who are not Canadian citizens, permanent residents of Canada, not a Canadian corporation or Canadian government entity.

A small drown weighing between 250 grams and 25 kilos is subject to obligations depending on whether its operations are considered “basic” or “advanced.”  To qualify for basic operations, a drone has to be flown in uncontrolled airspace (where no air traffic service is provided), flown more than 30 metres (100 feet) horizontally away from bystanders and never flown over bystanders. If these three conditions are not met, drone operations will be considered advanced, which will trigger additional requirements. Given the nature of shipping and port operations, it is likely Transport Canada will consider many drone operations in the shipping industry as advanced, according to Robin Squires, Partner, BLG and one of the study’s authors.

“It is important for both individuals and organizations to understand the new regulations as there are penalties for non-compliance. Depending on the contravention, the maximum fine is $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for corporations, or in some cases, imprisonment. Multiple infractions can lead to multiple fines.” Privacy, cybersecurity and insurance factors should also be considered before using drones, Mr. Squires added.

The use of drones in the shipping industry is relatively new, and very little is known about their applications. However, Mr. Squires has seen them used in two instances. One involved a complex docking procedure and the other was a client that used a drone to assess sea ice in the Arctic. He suggested the most common size of drone the industry will embrace will be about twice the size of a laptop, because it is the most cost effective, easy to fly and easy to transport.

“It’s difficult to determine how widespread the use of drones could become in the shipping industry, but I think the more people hear of others using them, the more they will want to use drones themselves. I don’t think they will necessarily reduce the use of manpower. They will be more of a risk management tool to make ships safer, such as surveying for Arctic ice. I also think we’re a long from them being used for unloading cargo at terminals in major ports.”