UAVs & SFOCs: An Overview of the Commercial Use of Unmanned Aircraft in Canada

The following is an article that I had written back in January for the flitelab website.  I’m re-posting it here as well for ongoing review and discussion.  The current commercial regulations in Canada for UAV use are quickly evolving but the below article covers most of the current requirements and related issues.

With recent advances in technology and  the reduced cost of sensors as a result of the smartphone and gaming industries, the availability of small, relatively inexpensive, personal drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has exploded into the market.  Combine this with tiny portable high definition cameras such as the GoPro and the ability to capture high quality aerial photos and video is now well within the reach of most consumers for less than $1000.

Along with a large growth in the recreational RC market, this has also opened up the potential for commercial applications on a much larger scale,to companies with much smaller budgets.  The list of applications includes real estate, media, journalism, search & rescue, industrial inspection, accident investigation, security, and agriculture, and the list grows by the day.  As the saying goes – the sky is the limit.

But another saying states – with great power comes great responsibility. While the use of these new aircraft for recreational hobby purposes has very few restrictions, once they are used within a commercial setting, a number of regulations and requirements come into play.  One cannot merely take a hobby system and use it legally in a commercial application. Within Canada, these regulations are controlled and managed by Transport Canada.

Section 602.41 of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) states: “no person shall operate an unmanned air vehicle in flight except in accordance with a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC).”  The requirement for a SFOC is intended to ensure the safety of the public and protection of other users of the airspace during the operation of the unmanned air vehicle.

Subsection 101.01(1) of the CARs defines model aircraft as:  “model aircraft” – means an aircraft, the total weight of which does not exceed 35 kg (77.2 pounds), that is mechanically driven or launched into flight for recreational purposes and that is not designed to carry persons or other living creatures.

 While the CARs do not define “recreational purposes”, a dictionary definition of recreation is “not for work – done for pleasure or relaxation”. Model aircraft enthusiasts fly their aircraft as a pastime, an unpaid diversion, as an activity that “diverts, amuses, or stimulates”. Section 602.45 of the CARs was put in place to allow sporting enthusiasts to operate model aircraft for personal enjoyment but not for monetary gain or other form of hire and reward. The Aeronautics Act defines hire and reward as
(a) “any payment, consideration, gratuity or benefit, directly or indirectly charged, demanded, received or collected by any person for the use of an aircraft”.
(b) Equipping model aircraft with a payload does not, in itself, make the model a UAV, however, once the model aircraft is launched for any reason other than recreational purposes, it is an unmanned air vehicle.

Once an aircraft is deemed a UAV as per the above definition, it requires an SFOC.  This applies to a small multicopter the size of one’s hand through to a large Predator sized fixed wing drone.  The altitude and location of the flight, be it on public of private property, is also irrelevant in terms of the SFOC. This also applies across all companies, groups, and organizations, even the RCMP require an SFOC for their drone operations. Any and all commercial use requires an SFOC be in place.

The specifics of the SFOC and application process can be found on the Transport Canada website:

A very useful related resource is the Staff Instructions document.  This outlines the application review process used by the Transport Canada staff, and thus provides a good overview of what they will be looking for within an application –

The typical application will cover the following main items:

·         Description of the operator

·         Description of the UAV and related flight/control systems

·         Description of the flight location and dates/times

·         Description of the personnel and their experience and roles

·         Description of operational and emergency procedure

Also as part of the SFOC, the certificate holder is required to have a minimum $100,000 liability insurance.  This insurance coverage is specific to UAV aircraft and not standard business liability insurance.  Currently, most providers will not sell a policy of less than $1,000,000 coverage. This can range from $1000 – $2500+ per year, depending on various factors such as experience of the pilot and type and number of aircraft.  As with the regulations and technology, the insurance industry is rapidly changing to meet these new needs, so will no doubt be in a state of flux for some time.

The regulations state that an application must be received by the appropriate Regional Transport Canada General Aviation Office at least 20 working days prior to the date of the proposed operation. Seven to ten days has been the norm for some operators in the Atlantic region, but this may vary based on staffing and volume of applications.  The process is handled electronically via email submission of the application, with the subsequent SFOC being returned via email as well. There is no cost for the SFOC and associated processes.

A successful application will result in the issuance of the SFOC document that defines the parameters within which the operation may be performed.  This may include requirements such as contacting local air traffic control for the creation of a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), as well as restrictions on distance from airports and structures, altitude limits, and items that may be specific to the flight location.

It should be noted that a separate SFOC must be obtained for each flight operation.  A single operation may however operate over multiple dates on the same SFOC within a limited window of a few weeks typically, assuming that the parameters do not change as listed in the application.  It may also be possible to obtain a longer term blanket SFOC after a record of safe operation has been established–however this is at the discretion of Transport Canada.

As with any business activity, the responsibility to comply with various laws and regulations falls onto the business operator.  For those unaware of the SFOC requirement, or those that choose to ignore them, they face the potential of fairly hefty fines.  Individual penalties are $5000 and $25000 for companies, for each incident.

As the development of UAV technology continues at a rapid pace, there will no doubt be ongoing changes to the regulations as well.  Transport Canada is currently working with industry groups to develop new requirements and regulations.  The full extent of these is not finalized, but it appears to be heading towards the model of full sized aviation, with certification requirements for the pilot and registration for the aircraft.

While the regulations may seem overly restrictive and would impact the ability to make them fit into a viable business plan, they are in fact less onerous than they first appear.  As with most government policies, it takes some time, research and effort to fully understand the requirements and to develop the application, but once this has been done, the subsequent applications leverage on much of the existing content, and mainly vary based on the specific of the individual operation. Many countries have an all-out ban on commercial UAV use, so in that respect, Canada is leading the way to allow for businesses to operate in what is becoming a billion dollar industry.

These are exciting times and the future holds a lot of potential for the commercial use of UAVs.  Only time will tell how regulatory bodies react to manage these evolving technologies. In the meantime, all involved need to try to work together to make sure we have a safe and viable industry for the short and long term.


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