What the U.S. Can Learn from Canada on Aviation Innovation

As I continue to digest the sUAS NPRM, which is expected to be published in the Federal Register on Monday, I came across Canadian drone attorney Diana Marina Cooper’s post comparing the proposed U.S. small drone framework with Canada's regime: 

Practicing in the Canadian jurisdiction, I believe that one of the most valuable aspects of our system is its flexibility and the fact that the system rewards safe operators. For instance, in Canada, first time SFOC applicants are typically rewarded narrow certificates in terms of time, geography and level of operational risk. As operators develop a track record of conducting safe operations, they are able to receive ‘standing certificates’ allowing them to operate for up to three years over large regions of the country.

The FAA should consider adopting a similar approach that rewards safe operators by allowing them to complete less restrictive operations. For instance, the proposed rules state that operators would not be able to fly over persons not involved in the operation. If an operator has a good track record of conducting safe flights, there is no reason why the FAA should not consider removing this burden.

As the FAA crafts its final regulations, it is important to find ways to build flexibility into the system, and to not only focus on punishing irresponsible behavior but also rewarding safe operators.

It does appear, as Ms. Cooper notes, that the FAA/USDOT approach skews heavily toward preventing a parade of airborne horribles rather than fostering a regulatory environment that would let this very promising technology thrive.

But we shouldn’t stop our search for aviation policy lessons learned from Canada at drones. In fact, a far more important lesson, which could also impact the UAS industry, concerns air navigation services. Right now, the U.S. is one of the few remaining industrialized nations in the world that has yet to separate its air traffic control operations from its aviation safety regulator. Canada famously did this in the mid-1990s, creating nonprofit Nav Canada to manage its airspace with great success that has become a model for the rest of the world.

Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation, who has promoted this sort of institutional innovation in aviation for several decades, has crafted a plan to bring 21st century management to U.S. air traffic control. The problems FAA has experienced in its attempt to integrate UAS into the national airspace system are almost certainly in part due to its outdated institutional model.

To be sure, making large changes to ossified bureaucracies is never easy. Fortunately, U.S. reformers need not look far to see the advantages that alternatives can offer us over the status quo.