Women in drone safety

Members of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Task Force had a great conversation with some prominent Canadian women whose work touch on various aspects of drone safety.

Featuring: Anne-Sophie Riopel-Bouvier (EXO Tactik Air Support), Kathryn McCulloch (Dentons), Maude Pelletier (MVT Geo-Solutions), and Sharon Cheung (COPA).

Panelist bios

Anne-Sophie Riopel-Bouvier (EXO Tactik Air Support)

Anne-Sophie Riopel-Bouvier is a Canadian Forces glider instructor, a flight safety officer with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Air Cadet Gliding Program and a co-founder of EXO Tactik Air Support, a RPAS operation company specializing in municipal and public safety operations based in the region of Montreal QC. She is a director of Unmanned Systems Canada — Systèmes Télécommandés Canada, founded the national RPAS flight safety program, and co-chairs the Flight Safety Action Team. More recently, Anne-Sophie graduated from Université Laval’s urban intelligence master's degree program.

Kathryn McCulloch (Dentons)

Kathryn McCulloch is a lawyer and partner at Dentons Canada LLP, focusing on drone and aviation regulation and dispute resolution. Kathryn advises clients from all corners of the drone industry, including: drone operators, consumer associations, navigation service providers, production companies, start-up and technology companies and non-aviation companies from an array of industries engaging in drone services. Kathryn is also a licenced fixed-wing aircraft pilot, a member of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, and holds an RPAS Certificate for Basic Operations. Her intimate knowledge of Canadian airspace structure and air traffic rules and procedures inform her drone regulatory practice to ensure she provides strategic regulatory and business advice for companies in this emerging area. Her more traditional aviation practice focuses on liability of commercial airlines, airports and air operators, and the regulatory framework in which they operate.

Maude Pelletier (MVT Geo-Solutions)

Maude Pelletier obtained a Baccalaureate (B. Sc.) in physical geography and natural environment and a Masters (M. Sc.) In geomorphology. These studies included advanced learning in processing and analysis of LiDAR data and aerial and multispectral imagery. As a research professional for the Center d'Études Nordiques (CEN) as well as for the Yukon Research Center (YRC - Yukon Research Center, Whitehorse), she has been in charge of numerous projects related to the fields of geomorphology and remote sensing. Afterwards, she took the initiative to integrate the use of drones with certain specialized sensors to locate areas of settlement, fractures and soil deformation along major northern road networks; all indicators of permafrost thaw. Since 2016, she has been the founder and president of one of the first Canadian companies to acquire aerial data acquired through professional drones. Internal research and development projects are at the heart of the company, always leading them to be ahead of the competition.

Sharon Cheung (COPA)

Learn it, earn it, share it are words that Sharon Cheung has been taught through the actions of other aviation enthusiasts, and a principle that she lives by. She currently serves as the Director, National Programming for the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), Canada’s largest aviation association that supports over 15,000 members. She has helped lead the launch of COPA’s expanded mandate to promote the safe integration of drones in Canada through its new membership program. This includes the introduction of Canada’s first drone scholarship to support advanced RPAS training within the growing community as well as hosting training seminars dedicated to helping RPAS pilots enhance their skills with safety top of mind. Prior to her time at COPA, Sharon managed stakeholder and reputation management initiatives at NAV CANADA, Canada’s civil air navigation services provider. This included working with industry partners to deploy new technologies such as their new NAV Drone software. Sharon’s passion for aviation and women’s leadership extends beyond her 9 to 5. She is the past chair for the Women in Communications and Technology National Capital Region chapter which serves a 200+ membership and is a co-organizer for the 2022 Girls Take Flight event which aims to connect young women with the world of aviation.


Fatima: Hello everyone and welcome to our Women in Drone Safety event. My name is Fatima Abbasi and I work with the RPAS Task Force at Transport Canada. To commemorate this year’s Drone Safety Day on December 3rd, we’re having a discussion today with some prominent Canadian women who work in the drone safety space. Joining me today are Kathryn McCulloch, Anne-Sophie Riopel-Bouvier, Sharon Cheung and Maude Pelletier along with my colleague Oliver Belhumeur-Génier, who will moderate today’s proceedings in French. Before I go any further, I wish to acknowledge that I’m in Ottawa and I am on traditional unceded territory of the Anishinaabe nation. I recognize that we all work in different places and therefore you might be working in another indigenous territorial land, but I encourage you to take a moment to think about this. I’ll hand it over to me colleague, Olivier, who will introduce today’s event in French and then we’ll get started.

Olivier: Hello and welcome to our Women in Drone Safety event. My name is Olivier Belhumeur-Génier and I work with the RPAS Task Force at Transport Canada. Today, December 3, we are marking Drone Safety Day by talking to prominent Canadian women who work in the drone safety space. Joining me today are Kathryn McCulloch, Anne-Sophie Riopel-Bouvier, Sharon Cheung and Maude Pelletier along with my colleague Fatima Abbasi who will moderate today’s proceedings in English. I also wish to acknowledge that I’m in Ottawa on traditional unceded territory of the Anishinaabe nation. I recognize that we all work in different places and therefore you might be working in another indigenous territorial land. I encourage you to take a moment to think about this. Now I’ll hand it over to my colleague Fatima so we can begin.

Fatima: Kathryn, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule today to join us. We’re very grateful. So can you tell us a little bit about the work you do? What are some of the dominant questions and trends in your industry when it comes to drone safety?

Kathryn: Absolutely, I’m happy to. I’m a lawyer but really what I do is I help companies and people manage risks when they’re using drones, whether drones are core to their business or they are looking to incorporate them. The advice I give ranges from advice on understanding and adhering to regulations, but then also how to abide by other provincial laws and avoid liability where possible and intellectual property matters. Some of the - the dominant trends that I see when it comes to safety fit into a few categories. The big one is people having a desire to just get a job done and using their drone to complete that job and seeking forgiveness rather than asking permission. And usually that comes out in operations that are conducted in dangerous areas, so whether that’s in controlled airspace or near power lines and so on. The other safety concerns that I see that comes up often is people using drones that are not necessarily well-suited for the operation that they undertake because they have a drone so they think that it should be able to conduct any kind of operation. And finally, and most interestingly from a legal perspective, is people trying their best to adhere to the federal regulations, but then also trying to understand how municipal bylaws and other rules layer on to those regulations. It creates a real unfortunate opportunity for conflict. So well-meaning and well-intentioned people can potentially end up in a dangerous situation because of the difficulty in understanding how these laws work together. So those are my three main areas that I see.

Fatima: Thank you for sharing that. You must see some interesting cases. So I’ll turn it over to Olivier.

Olivier: Thank you, Fatima. Anne-Sophie, how does drone safety facilitate your work as a pilot?

Anne-Sophie: For us, drone safety is essential. Our company is always working close to populated areas. So we are always close to citizens. Citizens of the city, but also citizens of the sky who use air transport. We absolutely cannot conduct operations that could put them in danger. The same goes for our crews. So for everyone involved in our operations, we need to ensure there are no injuries during our work assignments. Obviously, one of the advantages of drones is that they can be used in lieu of humans in dangerous environments. Since the goal of using drones is to help people, we certainly don’t want anything happening to them in the process. Lastly, from an administrative standpoint, there’s a saying I learned at a flight safety class I took a few years ago. They said, if you think safety is expensive, try having an accident. Again, from an administrative standpoint, investing in flight safety is to your benefit.

Olivier: Great, thank you. That was really interesting.

Fatima: So Sharon, when it comes to drone safety can you talk about the work that you do to support recreational and professional pilots?

Sharon: Yes, absolutely, and it’s a pleasure to be here with you Fatima and the rest of the panel. Thank you for including general aviation in the discussion. As for your question, on the work we’re doing to support recreational and professional pilots, it’s a good one. For those who aren’t familiar with COPA, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, we’re Canada’s largest aviation community. Over the last few years we’ve been observing and participating in conversations around the development of drones in Canada and this past May, we made an important decision to open ourselves up to this group, this growing world, both world, both groups, share a great deal in common, but more importantly, we all share the same sky. So our work at COPA is to promote the safe integration of drones in Canadian airspace and the safe applications of remotely piloted aircraft, regardless if you’re a drone operator who flies for fun or who makes a career out of it. So how do we achieve it? To answer your question, we do this by providing members the latest developments in the remotely piloted world, through safety seminars that not only count toward recurrent training but also reflects the topics that are of interest to recreational pilots so FPV, first-person view, racing, buying your first drone, common technical issues that come with buying your first drone, how to respond, perhaps building your own, how to maintain it and, of course, any associated rules and regulations that come with flying. A few other examples to note, we’re building an extensive library of information guides to support the most seasoned pilots and those who are new to the activity. And of course, as a membership association, advocacy is at the heart of everything that we do. So through the combined weight of our 16 000 members, which now include drone pilots, we work to get the issues that affect drone pilots and our community heard through government decision-makers. We’ve worked really hard to create and introduce a membership option that is of value to the drone community, whether through an insurance program that protects both personal and commercial operators through a mentorship program that we’re laughing at the end of 2022. On top of that we’re very excited to announce that we’ll be launching a scholarship program in January 2022, when the applications will be made available. And every year moving forward we will award three recipients with the opportunity to obtain their RPAS advanced certification. We’ll cover everything from the study materials to the flight review and, of course, the exam. So you can see that there’s a lot of work that’s happening, that’s on the go to support the recreational and professional pilots.

Fatima: Thank you for sharing that information with us.

Olivier: Perfect. Maude, I would first like to apologise for the confusion at the beginning, it’s Maude Pelletier. Welcome. Based on your experience as CEO of MVT Géo-Solutions, could you tell us about the role drone safety plays in your work.

Maude: At our company, drone safety is extremely important. The company’s mission is to help companies acquire geo-spatial data, either through specialized aerial imagery or through the capture of precision LiDAR data so that the data is precise and high-definition. That’s the advantage of drones: they help us obtain higher quality data in terms of precision and resolution. But to get that precision and resolution, the majority of our flights are automated. 90% of our flights are completely automated, which requires rigorous safety protocols both in the field and in terrain planning. By the same token, when training pilots internally, we have to test not only their piloting skills but also their ability to make good decisions when faced with a critical or emergency situation. Not just that, it’s also about how they're going to manage stress. When put in a stressful situation such as piloting very expensive sensors, how they're going to react. For safety protocols in the field and planning protocols, training is essential to ensure that automated flights, which are planned at the office before going out in the field, will be done properly. We have to ensure we know the height of infrastructure, buildings and hydro towers. Are our elevation models accurate in that area? If I am surveying along a cliff, will I be at a safe distance? The same goes for power lines. Automated flights are essential for getting quality data because we want to ensure we have the right coverage, the right speed. We need to have the right distance from the ground to get data with consistent resolution and precision. When we talk about automated flights, we’re talking about flying in GPS mode, but that also means that we can lose GPS in urban areas. We can lose the satellite, which means losing GPS mode. So pilots have to have the experience to take the drone into manual mode. These are things we consider when hiring a new pilot. In any of these situations, how will they react? So yes, safety in our business is essential, it’s what makes the difference, so that we can operate safely, in a way that's safe for the public. So, that’s very important. Thank you for asking, Olivier.

Olivier: Great, these are great points, a lot of things we might not always consider. Thank you.

Fatima: So the next question is for Kathryn. When it comes to women in leadership roles, how does the RPAS industry compare with other aviation industries in your view?

Kathryn: Well I think very well. This is a very refreshing industry for a few reasons. So I work in two very male-dominated industries, so traditional aviation and then also the legal industry. In many ways the legal industry is moving a bit faster in terms of incorporating women than traditional aviation but it’s a slow process. What I’ve found, being in the drone world, or the RPAS world is that because it’s so new, it’s really full of diversity and full of fresh faces. And I think that means that a lot of the traditional barriers that exist for women in traditional aviation just aren’t there. And really importantly, I see a lot of female founders of new drone companies and a lot of female engineers that are driving forward these businesses and they’re usually pretty open to female lawyers. So it’s really encouraging. Recently on an aviation litigation matter where I was working with a female lawyer, who is in-house counsel but also in a leadership role and the highest legal position in that organization. She told me that this matter we worked on was the first time in her entire career that she’d ever been on an all-female litigation team, on an aviation matter. So I think that’s a really hopeful sign for all of us. And asking about seeing women in leadership roles, I think that we’re poised to see even more in all aspects of the industry. So I’m pleased to answer that question.

Fatima: I agree. I think uncharted territory, the drone space and it’s opening avenues and potential in other areas for women as well. So thank you.

Olivier: Anne-Sophie, in the same vein, when it comes to the drone industry, what strengths and attributes are women bringing to their work?

Anne-Sophie: A very important attribute is taking our work as drone pilots seriously. As Maude was saying, there are a lot of responsibilities that are essential to ensuring safety. A pilot’s reaction, their familiarity with their aircraft and its systems and being able to react correctly in emergency situations are all very important. And as we were saying, operation planning, knowing the aircraft, knowing the environment, adapting to the environment, to the physical environment but also the human environment, the people we work with, the people we work around, understanding the client’s goals in order to meet them. There’s also teamwork and good communication with everyone involved. The point of having that sensitivity is to proactively anticipate threats, respond to them efficiently and neutralize them as quickly as possible. We’ve heard some great answers so far.

Olivier: Great, thank you very much. That’s really very interesting.

Fatima: So Sharon, from your perspective, what can organizations do to make flying drones a career choice for even a more accessible hobby?

Sharon: Great question. Just before I answer, I want to sit on Kathryn’s comment for a little longer because I most recently hosted a safety seminar on drone activities and it was an all-female panel and it was exactly as she said it. There is a lot more women who are experts in this space. And I didn’t go out and seek out women to represent the topic, I just found the most qualified person or people participate. So they are very promising. Olivier Wyman, they just produced a study on traditional aviation and there are some pretty stark numbers there. So I encourage anybody who wants to learn most about the numbers around leadership and women in aviation, they exist. There is a lot more work that still needs to happen and I’m definitely energized by the work that’s happening in the drone space. So for your question regarding accessibility, I think there’s a few definitions. So what does accessibility mean towards cost, overall cost as it relates to training, as it relates to seeing other who look like us, who are doing these activities as well. From a price-point, the great thing about drones, they’ve been around for a couple decades now. They’re also already accessible to the everyday consumer. Before committing to a big purchase, depending on what big means to you to a more technical device, I would probably start with more affordable options because they do exist, or even through a flight simulator. I personally used the free basic training that COPA offers its members through Costal Drone to understand drone before even committing to a device so I could buy less things. You also want to protect yourself. And so there are insurance programs that are important to cover the private operator just as much as the commercial operator. And, of course, we also, through our team we offer savings and discounts to products and services. Accessibility from a training perspective is a key consideration as refreshing and reviewing your knowledge is just as important as the actual flying. And that’s what the mentorship program, the scholarship activities, those can definitely help and we’ve very excited to release those. But just as much we host quarterly seminars that are available both online and in-person, free of charge to anyone who is interested. We know that building your own drone can add a lot of value and knowledge to understanding the tool but sometimes it’s the most affordable option to getting into the activity. So we’ll be hosting a workshop on that. On top of that, there’s tons of information guides. Another way that we can make flying drones more accessible is through community. So COPA has an extensive network of chapter, we call them COPA Flights. They could be really powerful for a drone pilot. These flying clubs, they meet regularly to fly together, to share knowledge with one another, to support and encourage one another and one teaser that I’m excited to share is how we’re working with municipalities so that we can allow for designated flying times in local parks for these flying clubs so that they can practice their skills, they can meet others and learn more about the activity itself. But going beyond COPA, there are also other communities that exist. I’ve personally benefitted from participating in Women in Drones activities. They host weekly Zoom calls, they show different aspects of drone activity. So it’s a lot of great exposure to what’s possible from mapping around a heritage building, because you are interested in preserving history within your community. Everything from recreational to commercial. So I hope this is helpful for those who are looking to get into the activity.

Fatima: Thanks for sharing your insights on the Women in Leadership positions question earlier and also sharing some great points and tips on activities that organizations can do.

Olivier: Maude, a question for you. Early in your career, what was it like integrating into the workforce and its hierarchy? Are things different today?

Maude: Yeah, for sure, when I started the company, I had to set a number of standards as far as which was the right drone, the right telemetry system, what’s the right drone, the right camera, the right lens. Really putting all the hardware in place for our operations. Additionally, I had to set standards in terms of acquisition parameters and flight parameters to get the precision and resolution in the different environments where we work, and also standards related to data processing. It was definitely a challenge to put those operational methodologies in place, but there was also the complex task of understanding Transport Canada regulations. When I started the company, it was new to me. I had to learn how to operate safely within Transport Canada’s rules. When we started-- I started the company in 2016-- at the time we had to apply for an SFOC. It could take up to a month and a half to get it. That was a challenge I hadn’t anticipated, having to survive despite the complicated regulations at that time. Then things got a lot faster and easier, and now it's much simpler. Now we can do projects very quickly. There was also the need to build credibility and a reputation not just with Transport Canada but within the industry, with our clients and our partners. I started the business alone, after two years there were two of us, and five years in we had 14 employees, so it grew quickly. Our business really set itself apart through the quality of the data we offer our clients but also the professionalism with which we adhere to regulations. It’s definitely easier now because we have earned our credibility and our reputation. We have good clients and good partners. We climbed the proverbial ladder and we have good growth but there are always new challenges in the drone industry. There are always new missions to grow drone-based geospatial data collection but also to fly beyond sight lines and VLOS. These are great challenges and we have a passionate team so we aren’t giving up, we’re pushing forward and I’m certain that we’ll always keep growing. Thank you, Olivier.

Olivier: Thank you for sharing your experience and how your company has grown over time.

Fatima: So the next question is going to be similar for all of you, but we’ll start with Kathryn. And it’s on the advice that you would give to women entering the RPAS, the drone industry. What advice would you give?

Kathryn: Sure, I think for anyone entering a new industry, there are some really important considerations that apply to anybody but some are more particularly important for women, or most women. And the first of those really is pretty obvious, it’s about goal setting. But at least in my experience, women have problems or challenges writing down what they want, or verbalizing what they want and what they hope to achieve so I think the better job you can do at articulating short-term, achievable goals, and then looking more to the future to your aspirational goals, the more focused your time and effort will be and it will help you get better traction in the industry. And then I think, probably the most difficult that I myself am certainly working on, is once you do get a toehold in an industry, is finding someone to not just mentor you but to sponsor you, So to help you identify opportunities but then go further than that and introduce you to people, introduce you to clients, to others in the industry that can help you. So finding people to promote you and vouch for you I think is critical to really being successful and then the final point that I’ll make is something that a mentor of mine always said, is that you spend a lot of time doing things for other people, so doing things for your employer, but make sure that you focus on your own personal file. My file is the Kathryn file. So that time is the most important because it’s your investment in your future. So I encourage everyone to invest in their own files.

Fatima: That’s helpful advice, all three points, very, very important. Thank you.

Olivier: Anne-Sophie, I’ll throw it back to you. Do you have advice for women who want to join the industry?

Anne-Sophie: Yes, I’d like to thank Kathryn for her comments because even though we’ve been in the industry for a number of years it’s a good reminder. I’m also eager to hear what Maude and Sharon have to say. What I would say is to have faith in your abilities and to not be afraid of leaning into an interesting mission. If we want to do it, we have everything we need to succeed. Obviously, do good work, that’s how we set ourselves apart, and appreciate everything you learn. The more we learn, the better we get, and then we can really execute flawlessly. And as Kathryn was saying, don’t hesitate to create relationships with colleagues in the field, colleagues from other companies and our own companies. Build a good network that supports you, that makes your day-to-day work enjoyable, people you have fun working with. That’s my favourite advice.

Olivier: Great advice. Thank you, Anne-Sophie.

Fatima: So along the same lines Sharon, what’s your advice to fellow women going into the business?

Sharon: I come from both a recreational and corporate viewpoint, so I think it’s worth addressing at least first how people get into this community through a variety of channels. Maybe they saw someone else operate a drone - oh, I muted myself, apologies. And that exposure sparked something in themselves. Perhaps they’re curious about how things work, like the mechanics of drones, the technology of a drone, the photography or media aspects of it. Or maybe they already have an aviation background and they want to see another element to the aviation ecosystem. So my connection first started in the corporate world through Nav Canada, where I had the opportunity to witness very important discussion around how to safely integrate drones into Canadian airspace. For me, that was kind of the click moment of how important it is to set up this emerging aviation technology for success. And through our organization and many others within the ecosystem. It’s nice to be able to connect those dots together to advance that drone strategy. So just wanted to reiterate there that we often look at operators as what represents the drone or the aviation’s world but we should take a step back and remember that there are many corporate and support roles that make up aviation, that make up the drone sector, the community, however you want to look at it. From marketers to program people to analysts or accountants. So we want to ensure that we focus on these people too and we’re helping them move forward with their goals or to find mentors and how to find sponsors. My advice, especially to professionals, to professionals who support the operations people, is to focus on immersing yourself on the learning. It’s very easy to stay at the superficial level of what you need to know but when you dig deep, when you start attending webinars or seminars that are held within the community and getting to know what the pain points are for others, setting up google alerts or signing up for e-newsletters or joining Facebook groups, those are very, very important ways to understand the subject matter from the people who actually use it every day. And perhaps that might influence you too. For those who are interested in flying I would say, never compare your chapter one to someone’s chapter 30. And I say that as a very competitive person who had entered the aviation world thinking, I need to just know everything right away. But you have to trust in the process. You have to do the work and learning everything about it. And that’s one of the beautiful things about aviation, drones, whatever, the entire interconnected system, is that it’s filled with very knowledgeable people who do want to share so you just have to put your hand up and ask questions and not be afraid to ask them. Especially around the people who are throwing out acronyms or all the terms. Ask to hold up and explain to you what’s going on. So definitely learn how to ask those right questions. I wanted to mention one more thing here that’s just general advice of learning how to juggle your goals and your priorities. I’d heard an analogy once that has just stuck with me of imaging that you’re juggling balls in the air and some of them are glass and some of them are plastic. Pick which ones, which of your goals and your priorities are the glass and let everything else drop that needs to drop so that you’re focusing on the right stuff, on the meaningful stuff and you can put those balls back in the air when you need to. I think it’s a very healthy way to move forward with whatever your goals are. I hope that helps women out there, or any professional.

Fatima: That analogy is very visual so good thoughts, great ideas and that analogy, I think, paints quite a picture. Thank you.

Olivier: To finish out this series of questions, Maude, what’s your advice to women coming into the industry?

Olivier: I think your mic is off.

Maude: Sorry, I’ll start over. Thanks for pointing it out, Olivier. I’d say to really go for it. It’s an industry with a lot of room for women. There are a lot of men but women are very respected. I’ve never felt out of place or constrained. I think women in the industry are driven, we are confident in our work. These are women who are go-getters, who are fearless and ready for adventure, because drones are an adventure, it’s a world that can be difficult at times. There are a lot of challenges, there's a lot to do, it’s a brand-new industry. There still a lot of work to do even though a lot has been done. We have to remember to take a step back and look at the road we've travelled. Sometimes we can be so focused on our goals, we keep our heads down, we focus and work, but sometimes we need to look at the road we've travelled and take advantage of that experience, because we’re surrounded by great people who are passionate about their work. It’s a fascinating world. It’s a stimulating environment. I can’t overstate how happy and satisfied I am with the path I chose. And it’s not just for drone pilots or people in aerospace, it’s for everyone. I am a geomorphologist by profession, I’m not a drone pilot, but I’m in the drone industry and have a drone company. It’s an industry full of extraordinary people from all backgrounds. They are passionate people who want to grow the industry. I’d like to tell women to forge ahead because you won’t regret it. Thank you, Olivier.

Olivier: Thank you very much, I think that’s great advice and the prefect way to end our question period. I’d just like to say a big thank you to our panelists who took the time out of their very busy schedules to join the conversation today. We are grateful to hear your perspectives and expertise on these issues and we look forward to collaborating with you in the future. If you’re watching at home and you enjoyed today’s presentation, please share this event on social media using the hashtag #DroneSafetyDay and check out some of the other products and initiatives on our Drone Safety Day website. Thank you again to everyone.

Fatima: I’d just like to say a big thank you to our panelists who took the time out of their very busy schedules to join the conversation today. We’re very grateful to hear your diverse perspectives on women in the drone space, your expertise on these issues and we look forward to collaborating with you in the future. If you’re watching at home and you enjoyed today’s presentation, please share this event on social media using #DroneSafetyDay and check out some of the other products and initiatives on our drone safety day website. Thank you again to all and have a good day.