When it comes to understanding the rules around proper legal use of drones in Canada it can be a confusing frustrating process for new owners. While Transport Canada defines these conditions on their website, it can be hard to understand for those not familiar with aviation terminology and government speak. In addition there is a lot of confusion with how regulations and guidelines are intermixed, making it less than clear as to what are actually laws and what are merely suggestions for safe use.
This article is our attempt to distill this information down to something more easily understandable by the typical new drone owner.
As always the end user is fully responsible for proper research and use of their drone, we are not lawyers, and the information provided here is our interpretation based on years of experience in both recreational and commercial use of these systems and meant as a general introduction and overview. Be sure to refer to the Transport Canada website for the full specifics.
Recreational vs Commercial
The first thing to determine, which impacts which regulations apply, is whether you are flying recreationally or commercially. While this may seem a simple decision, many often misunderstand what commercial means and cross the line of the recreational intent laid out by Transport Canada.
In the most simplest terms, unless you are flying completely for the pure enjoyment aspects of the hobby it is seen as commercial, or better stated non-recreational.
If you use the drone for any type of work, research, search & rescue, even unpaid work such as taking pictures of your friend’s home to help them sell it, it becomes non-recreational and falls under the commercial regulations. Even flights on your own property or work-site are considered commercial if they have any direct or indirect benefit to the business. Money does not need to change hands to make use considered commercial, so giving away photos for indirect editing services or related is not a legal loophole. Indoor flights as well done for commercial intent also come under commercial regulations. The size (if under 35kgs) and altitude at which is it flown also does not matter as it relates to being commercial or not. Once it leaves the ground, it is in the realm of aviation regulations.
Model Aircraft vs UAV
Based on if you are flying the drone recreationally or commercially, it will be referred to either a model aircraft or a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
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;
unmanned air vehicle means a power-driven aircraft, other than a model aircraft, that is designed to fly without a human operator on board
This definition will dictate which regulations apply. The same drone based on how it is used basically becomes regulated differently, so the terminology is critical when reviewing the regulations.
When it comes to the actual Transport Canada avaiation regulations & laws around recreational drone use, or as defined model aircraft, there are very few currently in place, the primary and basically only regulations is CAR 602.45:
No person shall fly a model aircraft or a kite or launch a model rocket or a rocket of a type used in a fireworks display into cloud or in a manner that is or is likely to be hazardous to aviation safety.
There are no defined specific restrictions around how high, how far from people, buildings, etc you need to be. It comes down to flying safely within the airspace, giving right away to manned aviation. Items such as the 150M altitude limit are merely suggested guidelines currently.
In addition there are defined restricted airspace zones that limit not only the use of manned aircraft, commercial UAVs, but recreational model aircraft as well. Niagara Falls is a good example of this, which is defined as Restricted F Airspace:
Designated Altitude – Surface to 3500ft
Time of Designation – Cont
User/Controlling Agency – Transport Canada, Hamilton TC Centre (905) 679-3477
Operating Procedures – No person shall operate an aircraft, including model aircraft, within the area described unless the flight has been authorized by the User/Controlling Agency, except for medical, police and military aircraft on official duty flights.
So always be aware of where you are flying before you leave the ground. Resources on airspace can be found in this article – Canadian Aviation Chart Resources
In addition to the letter of the law aviation regulations there are also a number of guidelines that Transport Canada have created to assist new operators in flying safe and staying within those laws. These however are suggestions only and not specific regulations themselves, and are often confused by media and others as actual laws.
The #nodronezone campaign announced last year is an example of these guidelines, which are meant to educate the public on safe use by setting some standards on where and when a drone “should” be used not where or how they “must” be used.
If you fly your drone for fun (legally known as a model aircraft) and it weighs 35 kg or less, following the “Do’s and don’ts” will make sure you operate within the law. You do not need special permission from Transport Canada to fly.
This confusion between laws and guidelines was further clarified with Transport Canada directly in this article – No Drone Zone Clarification from Transport Canada
While we always suggest following these Do’s & Don’ts as responsible operating procedures, it should be known that in and of themselves they are not black & white laws under which charges can be laid.
- Fly your drone during daylight and in good weather.
- Keep your drone where you can see it with your own eyes – not through an on-board camera, monitor, or smartphone.
- Make sure your drone is safe for flight before take-off. Ask yourself, for example: Are the batteries fully charged? Is it too cold to fly?
- Respect the privacy of others. Avoid flying over private property or taking photos or videos without permission.
- Don’t fly in clouds or fog.
- Don’t fly closer than nine km (five nm) from any aerodrome (i.e., any airport, heliport, helipad, or seaplane base).
- Don’t fly higher than 90 m (300 feet) above the ground.
- Don’t fly closer than 150 m (500 feet) from people, animals, buildings, structures, or vehicles.
- Don’t fly in populated areas or near large groups of people, including at sporting events, concerts, festivals, or firework shows.
- Don’t fly near moving vehicles, highways, bridges, busy streets, or anywhere you could endanger or distract drivers.
- Don’t fly within restricted and controlled airspace, including near or over military bases, prisons, or forest fires.
- Don’t fly anywhere you may interfere with first responders.
SFOC & Exemptions
When most start researching drone regulations they quickly run into SFOC (Special Flight Operations Certificate) & Exemptions. These items typically only apply to commercial use and do not govern recreational flights (unless your drone is over 35kg which would be rare for most).
Recreational users DO NOT need to file for exemptions or SFOCs if they are only flying for fun and under 35kgs.
If you are planning to use your drone beyond recreational purposes however, these are mandatory elements.
Drone Registration & Identification
Unlike in some countries, such as the US, Canada currently does not have any registration process for model aircraft and UAVs. While it is always suggested that you label your aircraft, it is not mandatory.
Licenses & Permits
Currently in Canada there are no drone/UAV specific licenses or permits. This is currently under review and will most likely be part of new regulations being announced in the coming year.
As with SFOCs & Exemptions, mandatory liability insurance is only a requirement for commercial use. Under current regulations recreational users do not need to carry insurance, although this may change when the new regulations are announced.
For those still looking to have insurance it currently can be very difficult to obtain as not many providers currently offer recreational coverage, although this is slowly starting to change and some options are becoming available. One source of coverage is through MAAC (Model Aeronautics Association Of Canada), although you will need to fly under the terms they set out in their membership.
Other Laws & Bylaws
Transport Canada is mandated with regulating aviation and airspace, however these are not the only laws that impact your legal use of a drone. All other laws still apply, such as those defined in the Criminal Code of Canada. You need to make sure you are not violating these laws, as well as those dealing with privacy, and related.
In addition, many cities, towns, and parks are implementing their own bylaws around the use of drones on their property. While these agencies cannot regulate how the airspace is used, they can define how their property is used. Parks Canada for example has a no drone policy for recreational use, you can only fly from Parks Canada property with the proper commercial SFOC and permission from the park. This also applies to some provincial and city parks.
Be sure to always check with the property owner/manager prior to determine what restrictions may be in place for drones.
New regulations are currently being developed by Transport Canada to address some of the current gaps and issues that exist today. These new regulations, the proposed details of which can be found in the NPA, look to remove the distinction between commercial and recreational use, as well as define a minimum knowledge requirement/training element along with an associated exam. The intent is to go to a permit/license system similar to what small pleasure boating uses.
Transport Canada is developing new regulations to address the safety requirements, growing popularity, and economic importance of UAVs. Proposed changes include:
- new flight rules
- aircraft marking and registration requirements
- knowledge testing
- minimum age limits
- pilot permits for certain UAV operations
These regulations are currently set to be announced in draft form in late spring/early summer 2017 with a planned implementation sometime late 2017 or early 2018.
To learn more on regulations be sure to checkout the Transport Canada website.
If your area has a local radio controlled flying field or MAAC club they can be a great place to learn more about the hobby and get some hands on help and training.
While training is currently not mandatory, learning more about air regulations, airspace, weather, and related topics can definitely be helpful in the successful safe use of your drone as well as prepping you for the upcoming new regulations. You can find drone related training resources in this article – Canadian UAV/Drone Training Resources
If your looking to make the jump to commercial use, checkout the numerous other articles on our blog, and if in need of SFOC assistance contact us directly as we do offer paid SFOC consulting services to assist new operators getting their initial applications and documentation in place.
Drones can be a lot of fun but as with anything require common sense and a bit of planning to be used safely and legally. Be sure to do your research before getting in the air. Fly safe & have fun!