Canadian Commercial Drone Regulations “For Dummies”

We have written a number of articles on the Canadian UAV/drone regulations and the specifics of the SFOC in the past, but these were very targeted and detailed looks at specific elements, and to those totally new to this topic they might have been a bit too specific for a first time read.  In this article we are going to try and provide a more introductory higher level look at the regulations for those totally new to this industry and technology.

dji-phantomTo start off, the main item we are discussing are UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or commonly called “drones”. Most commonly these are multicopter aircraft such as the DJI Phantom or similar, which for all intents and purposes are “flying cameras” in the minds of most new users. These systems allow for a fairly simple and easy means to get a camera in the air and capture aerial photos and video.  With DJI and others now selling these systems as RTF (ready to fly) the barrier of entry and cost is fairly low and you can walk into your local camera shop, such a Henrys, and buy a complete system all in one box and ready to fly once you have charged the battery.

Once people have used these cool gadgets and see how easy it is to get amazing aerial imagery the thought quickly turns to how to make money off them.  The applications are endless, from real estate photos of homes, search and rescue, crop management for farms, etc, the list goes on and on, “the sky is the limit” as the saying goes.  And what better way to pay for ones new toy or possibly even start a new business than built around this new fun and exciting technology?

The issue however is once you go from recreational use for fun to using it for work, the can of regulatory worms is opened. While you might think that since you can do it recreationally with very few restrictions the same should apply for paid use as well, the reality is that once it is no longer “just for fun” it is considered “commercial” and falls under the rules managed by Transport Canada.

You might think that you could maybe not charge for the service or just do it for friends, or maybe not charge for the flying but charge instead for editing the photos or some other indirect service, maybe even for a trade for a free round of golf if you shot photos a golf course for example.  However, paid or not, directly or indirectly, it it still considered commercial use in the eyes of Transport Canada.  Anything that is not 100% meant for recreation is seen as commercial. So no matter how you might justify it in your own mind, the powers that be still consider it commercial and require you to follow the associated regulations.

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.

This also includes use on your own property, so a farmer inspecting his fields or animals, management company using it on site of their own building, real estate agents on listings they manage all are considered commercial use.  Even search and rescue, volunteer, research/educational work falls into this category as well. Again if its not purely for fun then it is seen as commercial.

If these regulations are ignored then you potentially face fines of up to $25,000 per violation. In addition you could also be personally liable if an accident were to happen, such as damaging someones car or worse yet hit a child. Part of the regulations requires that UAV specific liability insurance be in place with the operator to cover such incidents.

You also need to be aware that certain uses are not likely going to be allowed even with an SFOC.  Flying over people at a concert, near an high traffic airport, dropping items from the aircraft, etc are basically off limits without very special authorization if at all.

So what does this mean now that you determined that you still want to do work with your drone?

The first step is to see what level of regulations apply to your specific use.  Since November of 2014 there has been a number of changes made to the regulations as well as new “exemptions” that allow for some commercial use without the need of all the paperwork of a full certificate.  We covered the exemptions in an earlier article – UAV SFOC Exemptions “For Dummies”

Many people take a quick look at the exemption Infographic and see the “under 2kgs” and quickly assume their DJI Phantom or other small UAV is under that weight so they are free to do work with no additional requirements. The devil however is in the details and there are many additional requirements that you need to meet beyond just the weight.  Basically the exemptions only apply in very specific uses and for specifics sizes of UAVs.  For the most part these will probably not apply as one main restriction is the need to be 9km from any airport or “built-up area”.  The definition of a built-up area as defined by Transport Canada can be found here but or the most part anything more than a single rural farm will be considered built-up.

If the exemption will work for your needs then it is the quickest and simplest way, but keep in mind the onus is on you to ensure you meet all the requirements and you also still need to have UAV liability insurance.  For information on insurance and where you can get it see this article – UAV SFOC How To – Part 3 Insurance

Another item to keep in mind is the age requirement.  Like most new technology the young often gravitate to it faster and are much quicker to learn how to use these devices than older folks.  All those years of video games quickly translate into controlling the aircraft. The issue however is that all key people involved with commercial use of a UAV must be 18 or older, including the pilot.  So be aware if you are of that age and wanting to start possibly your first business, you may need to get some older people involved to do it legally until you can meet the age requirement.

You will also in most all cases require an additional person to be part of your team.  Most instances require a spotter in addition to the pilot to assist with the flight to ensure it is done safely.  So something to keep in mind if your looking to go it alone in the business.

If the exemptions wont apply for what you want to do, which is probably the reality for most, the next step will be obtaining a certificate from TC (Transport Canada), which is referred to as an SFOC – Special Flight Operation Certificate.

In simple terms you create a document outlining the who, what , where, when, and how of what you are planning to do with your UAV, including all your procedures for emergencies, and standard processes you will operate under and send that off to the regional TC office for your area for review.  The level of detail required will depend on your specific needs and the type of certificate you are requesting.  TC will review it and then get back to you with either a certificate stating you are able to do the work as outlined, or a rejection if you do not cover all the necessary information.  The process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months or longer, all dependent on how many other applications are in the backlog for your area.  So you need to plan accordingly and apply well before the required date you want to fly.

For your first number of applications you will have to do one for each individual job.  Once you have a proven track record with TC you can then request a longer term certificate, often called “blanket” or “standing” SFOC that will allow you to do multiple jobs over a longer time frame without having to submit each job individually.

There is no cost for the SFOC, however it does require a substantial time commitment to develop the application and properly research all the information you need to include.  There is no template or application form either to work from, you basically have to create your own document from scratch.

For further information on the SFOC process we suggest you review these articles which go into details on the various aspects involved with the regulations and application process:

Also be sure to review the Transport Canada UAV page for more details and links to the detailed regulations.

The key point in all this is that you cannot assume anything and need to be aware of the regulations like you would in any business.  While it may seem tempting to make the leap from hobby to making some money on the side or staring a full time aerial business, there are a number of hoops to jump through and costs associated in both time and money like any other enterprise. Take the time to properly research things up front before you get part way down the path only to find a road block. UAVs are a cool new technology and commercial use will be a huge growth area in the years ahead, but so will be the red tape that follows it.


  1. Thanks so much, this is really the best write-up I’ve found on this subject so far. Much more useful and transparent than how the information is organized on the Transport Canada website!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You say something in this piece about drones are generally considered multi-rotor devices. What about a cheap-o RC helicopter – is that governed by the same rules?


    1. We mentioned that multicopters are the most commonly used for camera a work, like the Phantom or similar. Any and all unmanned aircraft being used commercially fall under these rules, be it an RC fixed wing, helicopter, etc. Most cheap toy RC helis wouldn’t often be used but if they were the same rules apply, but again for commercial use only.


      1. Thanks, I wasn’t sure if it was a question of form factor or not – but it sounds like it is more a matter of whether it is used commercially.


  3. I’ve been trying to find an answer for my question, but I can’t find it anywhere, and anything I read just confuses me even more.

    If I want to fly a drone (under 2kg) to take photos as a hobby, do these restrictions apply? Is that considered commercial or recreational? The photos are not for anyone and they won’t be sold or given to anyone at all, they’re just for pleasure.

    More specifically, can I fly my drone to take photos for pleasure in a built up area? Or would I need a SFOC?


  4. Just keep in mind of common sense. Some of your photos on your site are flying over people, bridge, traffic, and fairly high altitudes in areas that are controlled airspace where there is active air traffic.


  5. Here is a question I can’t find an answer to – and TC is taking its own sweet time responding to my email on the subject:
    Given we are talking about under 2kg drones for hobby use, in a rural area: can I fly one over my own property if someone within 5 miles has a plane or copter, and flies from their property? Not a formal airport or helipad…..
    Any advice greatly appreciated


    1. For hobby use you can pretty much do whatever you like as long as you are not endangering other aircraft or breaking any other laws. There is no specific 5nm rule for recreational use.


      1. I finally got a response from Transport Canada (in January!) And they disagree.
        Given this definition, the guidance material provided for the recreational use of remotely piloted aircraft (i.e. recreational drone users) regarding remaining 5nm (9km) from any aerodrome, as well as the conditions in the Transport Canada Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) exemptions requiring UAV operations to remain a minimum of 5nm (9km) from the centre of any aerodrome, would apply to any private airstrip or heliport.


  6. I just wanted to point out what I found in the transport canada rules which may be an overlooked “loophole” so to speak. It said that it will be considered commercial use if there was an agreement for some sort of compensation for the photography PRIOR to the flight operation taking place. If you have footage that you took recreationally and agree to sell that footage AFTER you took it, it is still considered recreational use.


    1. Loopholes are not a means forward for the industry. If your serious about using UAVs then get an SFOC and do it properly. If a accident happens on your “recreational” flight you could end up personally liable regardless of the loophole.


    2. As well there does not need to be any compensation to be considered commercial, generally the term used now is non-recreational use. If it is not 100% for fun use then it needs an SFOC.


  7. Great articles. Thoroughly enjoyed this! In regards to applying for an SFOC, since i am just starting out, you mentioned i would need to apply for each flight i do (commercial). So even if i apply from a Compliant Operator standpoint, i would need to submit the manuals and everything for a single flight every time?!


    1. There are only a few Compliant aircraft so far. Most operators are using Restricted Complex SFOCs. And yes for the first few applications it is operation specific.


  8. I have a phantom 4 that I have only been using for fun on my rural farm. I have been approached by ag businesses as well as friends who have car dealerships and real estate to take some photos for them. While I haven’t followed through with those requests, I have put some thought into it and maybe promoting and making money from this. If I was to do so can u explain to me what the excemption forms all mean and if I fall into that category. Or do I need to have a SFOC.? As you can tell I’m a little confused by all of this, but really want to play by the rules. Thanks


    1. Unlikely you can use an Exemption as they cannot be used in built-up areas, they are mainly for remote locations. Best approach is with an SFOC for more flexibility.


    1. Yes other than some minor changes to the Exemptions this past December, most of what is listed in the article still applies. There are variations in how each region handles SFOCs but it is the same underlying process as outlined in the article.

      New regulations are expected to be announced in Spring of this year but most likely wont be in place until 2018. Until then the SFOC process will be the primary means for commercial UAV use.


  9. I am a private airplane pilot and have been flying my UAV for rural aerial photography and multi spectral imaging under a Complex-Restricted SFOC.

    I would like to expand to aerial photography in built up areas and I am curious if I require any additional certifications or paperwork.

    All the best.


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