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Expanding drone technology took flight at the Western Regulators Forum.


Look up. Look way up. That gently buzzing bird you see near regulated oil and gas sites is actually the AER making better use of technology. And we aren't the only regulator taking a bird's eye view of energy operations.

The AER and over 50 counterparts from the Western Regulators Forum in B.C., S.K., and N.T, including the Canadian Energy Regulator, gathered virtually to share how Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), or drones, take wing with regulators.

Once a flight of imagination, drones are now used for more than just routine inspections. Regulators use them to:

  • better respond to incidents,
  • keep staff at a safe distance from potentially dangerous situations,
  • detect emissions at well sites,
  • get a better view of remediation and reclamation activities, or
  • keep an eye on areas that are difficult to reach or are environmentally sensitive.

Ultimately, drones help to safely and efficiently gather data for better regulatory decision making. The AER has nine drones in use across the province.

"The rapid development of this technology will likely become more significant in our industry over the coming years," says Gary Neilson, the AER's RPAS program lead. "The possibility of new drone-mounted sensors for data collection and longer-range inspections will only enhance our ability to ensure our rules are followed and that we're detecting problems early."

But using a drone is not as simple as driving up to a site and snapping batteries into the back of a controller—operators can't just wing it. Drones weighing more than 250 g, a little more than a hockey puck, are regulated by Transport Canada and operators must obtain a pilot's license.

Ground school at the AER includes knowledge of and strict adherence to airspace classifications, privacy legislation, and municipal bylaws. Flight school kicks it up a notch to teach operators to work within flight rules, keeping the drone in sight at all times. Under Transport Canada rules, trained AER staff qualify for advanced operations, meaning they can fly in controlled airspace and relatively close to bystanders.

"Although the vast majority of our activities are in remote places, having the highest level of a drone pilot's license means the AER can respond, inspect, and investigate where we need to, with the appropriate permissions from NavCanada, local authorities, or landowners," says Neilson.

So, don't be surprised when you see the AER or its regulatory colleagues taking to the skies across western Canada for a bird's eye view of the energy sector. As the technology continues to develop, and as legislation changes, the sky is the limit.