Rethinking Canadian “Drone” Laws

Since the announcement of much tougher recreational drone/model aircraft regulations by the Minister of Transport in mid March, there have been numerous debates on the direction and impact of the new laws.  Canadian regulations basically went from a free for all to basic ban overnight.  Somewhere in the middle of the extremes is a balance.

This article outlines some thoughts on where that balance may be and an improved approach to addressing the management of drones/uavs/models going forward that not only accounts for aviation and public safety, but takes a real world view that the technology is here to stay and must be allowed to be used both recreationally and commercially if Canada is to remain at the forefront of innovation.

These ideas and concepts are not set in stone but merely first thoughts on striking a fair and balanced approach to address the concerns of all stakeholders.  No set of laws will be perfect for all but they should address each group as fairly as possible.

Recreational Vs Commercial

The distinction between recreational & commercial use needs to be removed.  Regardless of the intent of a given flight, the same risks are involved.  This current separation based on intent has caused confusion and loopholes with little added benefit.  Going forward the regulations need to address all uses on a equal grounds. Be it used as part of a hobby or part of a business, the regulations need to focus on safe use regardless of how or why it is being flown.

License Based Approach

To address the need to manage and track use of these systems, and to provide a means of verifying knowledge and assign liability, a licensed based approach is needed.  We propose the following tiered system to address a range of different types of use, sizes, and capabilities.

Unrestricted

The unrestricted class would cover systems falling 250g and under.  This class would require no formal license or training and no age restrictions. Small drones in this class allow anyone to get started flying with no barriers of entry.  It will help promote the growth of the systems across all ages and be a great learning tool.

Main restrictions would be:

  • No flights over people or private property without permission
  • No flights within 1km of aerodrome.
  • Max altitude 50M
  • Max distance 50M

Class A

Class A would be first level license, intended for what would currently be considered most hobby or recreational use and limited business cases.  It would allow users to fly on their property or at local parks and fields (where by-laws allow) and also provide for applications such as inspection of own property for areas such as farming, mining, forestry, etc where the focus is on smaller limited areas.

Would require an online knowledge test.

Main restrictions would be:

  • No flights over people or private property without permission
  • No flights within 1km of aerodrome or within controled airspace
  • Max altitude 75M
  • Max distance 100M
  • Maintain lateral distance of 50M from people/vehicles/buildings
  • No night flights
  • Mandatory liability insurance
  • Max weight 2kgs

Class B

Class B would be second tier license, to address many of the needs of most current “commercial” operations where the systems are being used for more urban and controlled areas.

Would require a knowledge test at a Transport Canada or approved facility.

Main restrictions would be:

  • No flights over people or private property without permission
  • Flights permitted near aerodromes & controlled airspace with coordination
  • Max altitude 120M
  • Max distance 1000M
  • No lateral distance restriction from people/vehicles/buildings
  • Mandatory liability insurance
  • Max weight 15kgs

Class C

Class C would be the upper tier for larger systems and less restrictive operations.

Would require a knowledge test at a Transport Canada or approved facility.  It may also be suggested that a flight tests also be part of the process, possibly tied to specific aircraft types given the latitude possible within this class.  Further review is needed on what this may entail.

Main restrictions would be:

  • Flights allowed over people/private property/vehicles/buildings at min 50M altitude
  • Flights permitted near aerodromes & controlled airspace with coordination
  • Max altitude 200M
  • Max distance 5000M
  • Mandatory liability insurance
  • Max weight 35kgs
  • Requires Compliant/certified/tested aircraft (to be further defined)
  • Limited beyond line of sight capabilities (to be further defined)

MAAC/Model Organizations

MAAC and other recognized modelling associations would continue to operator under their own existing guidelines.  This allows for their use that has been around for decades to continue unaffected and allow for more flexibility at approved fields without the need for members to obtain a license.

ATC Coordination

The process of coordination for flights within controlled airspace or near aerodromes needs to be simplified and improved.  With operators needing a license for flights in these areas under this proposed approach there would be a given level of knowledge in place and thus added flexibility.  Requiring UAVs to file NOTAMs which happens in some instances now is a confusing and ineffective process.  The ability for users to access such airspace in a timely manner is critical for effective use of these systems, especially in cases such as SAR, first responders, news/media.

An approach similar to manned aviation for filing flight plans or similar should be created, ideally via an online accessible systems that would track planned flights to the operator and their operational zone and times.

Ability to make use of VHF radios is also key, allow UAVs to integrate equally using existing effective tools for those properly trained.

UAVs need to be treated as equal citizens when it comes to accessing airspace when done by responsible licensed users.

Indoor Use

Indoor use should be unrestricted and outside the mandate of Transport Canada.  It should be the responsibility of the facility owner to define what they consider as safe use and be insured as they deem fit. As there is little to no impact on manned aviation, this usage will allow for uses such as training, racing, exhibitions, testing/research to continue without restrictive laws.  It would be no different than what current sporting and other indoor events are held to.

Training

Any training/education required by users to be able to pass licensing exams should be left unregulated and to the discretion of the individual to select and for the free market in the industry to develop.  Approved training facilities merely introduce artificial barriers that restrict accessibility and limit options.

Different people learn via different means be it self taught, online, or in class training.  In the end the license should be proof of knowledge and not proof of taking a given style of training.

Enforcement

A key element of any regulation is enforcement.  Without actual teeth the laws have little value and will be abused by those wanting to beat the systems.  Ability to police needs to be given to local law enforcement and they be given the proper training and resources to deal with the added workload.

Punish those that abuse the system but not at the expense of labeling everyone as a bad apple.

Tools & Resources

Proper tools are resources must be provided to users so they can effectively understand and manage their operations and flights.  Terminology must be simplified so anyone can clearly understand the wheres, whens, and whys, of proper use.  Pushing existing aviation terminology onto those unfamiliar with the industry is not an effective approach.

Transport Canada and other regulators need to make tools available to assist in areas such as viewing airspace, reporting concerns, and related.  Industry could play a partnership role in this area as well, better involving businesses into the overall management and growth of the sector.

Summary

Drone technology and its use is only going to continue in the coming years. As such Canada needs to take a progressive and innovative approach to managing the use if we want to stay as a leader in the industry.

There is great value in these systems as tools to bring kids of all ages into technology and sciences as well as creative arts and related fields as the use expands.  Limiting access is not the wise approach.

Again these concepts are not all new nor perfect, but one possible approach to strike a balance between risk and reward of drones in our lives.

Let us know your thoughts and ideas on how we can make the system work for all involved.

29 comments

  1. Finally someone with experience in the industry steps forward with some recommendations that makes sense. You need to make a youtube video and get this idea out there.

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  2. Mark, thanks for this, well reasoned and thought out as usually. I think a licensing model is a good start. It looks similar to the driver licensing model where the licenses are graduated and there are different levels for passenger and commercial drivers.

    I worry about the scope of this. Transport Canada is swamped dealing with the increased level of commercial users (SFOCs). My concern would be that this type of licensing model would totally destroy them. They are not set up to deal with the resulting volumes that you are proposing. Our comments on the NPA to utilize online systems for a lot of the current process has exposed that they are not really good at the online side of systems.

    Another concern is MAAC carveout. I think that if we get a licensing model, we have to extend it to MAAC flyers as well. MAAC would be a good vehicle to get the Class A license, and take the load off TC to allow this to be implemented.

    And lastly, I’m concerned about blurring the lines between commercial and recreational flyers.

    Currently, there is a wide gap between commercial and recreational flyers, including items like Operations Manuals, operating procedures, insurance, maintenance, ATC coordination. I would favour a boating license model for recreational users where a basic understanding would be demonstrated, while a true licensing model with both theory and practical tests would be needed for commercial operators.

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  3. Hi Mark — interesting proposal, and hitting on the important issues. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, which I have always found insightful.

    I would be hesitant to endorse a license-based approach. This means we agree to a “no, unless” regime, instead of a “yes, but” one. In other words everyone is prohibited from any flying unless they’re licensed, rather than everyone can fly as long as they observe the rules.

    Also I think the cost of a nation-wide graduated licensing system would be more than we expect, and would be borne by those applying for licenses. Ouch.

    Dave

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  4. BRAVO! UNBELIEVABLE! An ACTUAL balanced approach to the use of drones in our country! Laws will never be “all things to all people” … but that is what compromise is all about! In June, I sincerely hope that “calmer” heads prevail and that we finally end up with regs that we can ALL live with and up to! Thanks so much for this!

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  5. I’d also like to see an addition to Class A or above for Emergency use such as in Search and Rescue, Firefighting and even in a supporting role to Law Enforcement if requested.

    I’d also like to see Class A bumped up to 100M altitude and 500M distance.

    I’m really glad to see a common sense approach for a change. What’s the plan for getting this to Transport Canada?

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  6. For class A, what purpose does the 75m height restriction serve? Why not 90m or 400 feet? As long as they are below the commercial aircraft.

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  7. CLASS A specs are good … However the MAX alt & distance limits have to be “upped” somewhat. The limits you describe are just a bit too conservative. Cheers!

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  8. Nice to see a discussion on TC new regulations. I agree with most of your outline Mark except the height restriction in class A should be increased. Also feel there should be a reference to population density or lack there of. I live in the north in a class G airspace with no people for 5 Km. Just a thought. Keep up the good work.

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  9. Well done, this is a very good step towards something that will work for everyone as opposed to what Marc (the butcher) Garneau has put in place which basically works for no one except the MAAC people who paid him off.

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  10. Some of the proposals you have suggested effectively eliminate many parts of the hobby from which your company was founded.

    Please consider how these proposals would affect aircraft related hobbies which have very low risks and long safety records such as hand launched gliders, electric park fliers and yes even mini quads with cameras 🙂

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  11. Your suggestions are much more detailed than the current regulations but I’m afraid that you’re still off the mark. The very notion of having to obtain a “license” for Class A flying, not to mention liability insurance is going to make this hobby impossible to get into for a lot of people. Remember that these things are going to cost money to administer. And as we all know the cost of insurance and licensing can be very high, especially when the government gets its hands into the mix.

    Also, the Class A option is actually stricter than what’s currently in place. It would make it very difficult for an aerial photographer (such as myself) to pick up my drone and go and fly somewhere to get some good images. And what if I do get some images/videos and want to post on YouTube? Does that make me a “commercial” operator? Do I have to go to the next tier?

    I’m all for safety and balance but I have a problem with extreme measures and I still think that some of what you suggest is too extreme. I think that drones should be treated the same as bikes. You need to follow the rules of the road, but you do not need a license. If you break the rules or are the cause of an accident you can be charged, fined, arrested, or whatever based on the offense. There are already existing laws that can be used as the basis for laying charges on unsafe operators.

    Just imagine what would happen to going out and buying a bike and going out for leisurely stroll if you had to have a license and liability insurance. I bet that quite a few people would stop riding their bikes. The same would be true with drones.

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    1. Our approach is based on striking a balance that would be acceptable to all involved. There will be give and take on all sides needed otherwise it may well remain as is. This was merely an attempt at a starting point, which is based on where we are at now and where things are expected to go based on the NPA. Permit/license based system “is” coming, it has been known for sometime. Unlikely we will see the free for all that existed before. In fact I expect things to get tougher for all involved including commercial users when we see the new draft regulations in June.

      The removal of recreational vs commercial is coming as well and extends into what we proposed also at all levels. Prior to the new changes it was a major loophole exploited by many.

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      1. I do appreciate your initiative and my comments are not meant as criticism. You may well be right that tougher rules are in the offing and that there may be a day when we look back at the current regulations and wish that they were still in place.

        I would say that my position is rooted in a basic philosophical belief that less government involvement in people’s day-to-day activities is best, especially when there’s no real proof that government intervention is necessary. Part of the problem that I’m having with Garneau’s initiative is that no matter how much I look I can’t find any official documentation to all these near-accidents with drones that Garneau mentioned in his announcement. Many drone incidents are anecdotal and often turn out to be something other than a drone.

        I think there needs to be a concerted effort to set the government on the right course when it comes to drones. I think that my bike analogy holds in this regard, especially for hobbyists and people who have limited commercial interests in drones. Rules need to be in place and need to be followed but the rules need to be reasonable. If someone breaks the rules and are responsible for causing an accident they need to be held accountable. One does not need a license to be held accountable.

        But here’s the thing that I think is important to remember. A license and liability insurance do not immune people from stupidity. The government can force people to jfollow all sorts of rules, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to follow these rules and be smart. As Plato said millennia ago:

        “good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws”

        Liked by 1 person

  12. No fly zones-sure
    Height restictions-sure
    Vlos-sure
    Realistically safe distances from people etc- sure
    Age restrictions-sure
    Online training- sure
    Lump commercial and recreational into
    Same category- no
    High cost( $500!!) insurance- omg

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  13. You certainly present a regime which on the surface appears to strike a much more balanced approach to the issues at hand. There are still some aspects of the new interim rules that you haven’t addressed, but vastly better thought out than Transport Canada’s.

    The aerodrome vs. the airport – there is no distinction in the new rules which is ludicrous – how does 255 sq. km. per airport grab you? That could be a high rise rooftop helipad used once per year. We all seem to overlooking the fact that the 91m AGL rule covers 95% of the concerns regarding A/C safety. With the exception of the approach and departure ends of runways, piloted A/C have no business under 500ft. Period. If UAV pilots stay away from these areas off the ends of runways and stay under 400′ (the US max ceiling) there would never be a conflict. 9km? Assinine!

    Then there’s the animals – as written, the rules forbid me to take off if there is a mosquito within 75m of the UAV. A seagull wants to check out your aircraft? Better land before you get caught.

    Name, Address and Telephone number clearly visible on the UAV? Has TC never heard of the federal privacy laws? I will be complying with this rule when everyone does the same with their cars, trucks, boats, bicycles, skateboards, and snowmobiles. Again, the US regulation requires a registration number instead which makes the owner identifiable while protecting individual rights to privacy.

    The rules should be able to achieve realistic safety goals while trying to strike a balance with UAV operations. I just return from the USA after a month with my drone down there. I registered and marked my quad-copter as required and learned all the rules (which all made sense and were easy to understand and follow). Canada would have done well to simply adopt the US model.

    The privacy aspects of the rules are unnecessary as they are already covered by Canada’s criminal code.

    Your proposal to ban flights over private property is actually more restrictive than the rules as written. No one ‘owns’ the rights to the airspace over their property so it is not necessary to obtain permission for an overflight that does not land on said private property. That said, people DO have the right to privacy as specified in the law. UAV pilots know and understand that, and for the vast majority of instances, respect that.

    There will always be rule breakers, no amount of legislation, regulation, and enforcement will change that. Break the rules, you lose your drone and accessories, fined, and banned from flying – but first the rules must make sense.

    Keep up the good work and the pressure.

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  14. As a new flyer to this hobby, and as I envision being a recreational flyer. I agree with some but not all of the main restrictions listed for Class A. However, I do propose that:

    1) The the distance from an aerodrome or place where aircraft take off or land should be
    increased to a 3 Km radius for Helipad location, and 3 Km parallel to the side of a runway,
    and 6 Km off the ends of the runway used by manned aircraft and gliders.

    2) The Max Altitude be increased to 100 m from 75 m.

    3) The Max Distance be increased to 150 m from 100 m.

    4) Zero Lateral Distance if over Drone operator’s property.

    5) No Liability Insurance for Class A.

    6) Max Drone weight for Class A be reduced to 1.5 Kg.

    These recommendations are what I would consider to be reasonable.

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    1. Miles, where did you get your numbers for alt and horizontal distances? Max alt is 90m, but i do agree with 100m, and max horizontal distance is 500m .

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      1. Tim:

        For Recreational Drones

        Well…… Transport Canada has the height of flight currently at, 90 m (295.2 Ft). The author of the article above recommends for Class A, has it at, 75 m (246.0 FT). I myself as a beginner feel that a flight height of 100 m (329 Ft) is not to much of a difference between either Transport Canada or the author of the article as to their noted heights. I don’t think 10 m (39 FT) would upset things. Ft= Old Timer’s Measuring

        Basically, I am putting my height recommendation out there with the consideration of the newer flyers to this hobby, myself included, to give a little more wiggle room to play with while learning control of their craft. I have not checked but I assume there is a minimum height that powered aircraft are to observe to which my recommendation or suggestion if you will, still maintains an adequate safety margin.

        As to the query about the horizontal distances, Transport Canada has it set at, 500 m (1640 Ft). The author, recommends 100 M (329 Ft ). I again feel 150 m (493 Ft) is reasonable, as most drones under $ 200.00 have a range that usually falls between the authors recommendation and mine. Drones ( right out of the box) that can fly out side the distance I suggest, and to 500 m and with or without transmitter modifications, should be placed under recommendations for Class B of the above article.

        I feel a lateral distance should or would not apply if the drone was flown within a property owners legal lot lines and to a recommended height of 15 m (50 Ft). Guidelines as such would make and allow the use of drones equipped with cameras to inspect for any damage caused by a hailstorm for example, and the ability to record on video the damages found. And it would be courteous to inform the neighbors about and before conducting the inspection. No need to pay someone to do what you can do yourself 🙂

        And I would also recommend dropping the licence requirement for Class A.

        Just my 2 cents and I welcome input from the more experienced flyers. A little bit of advise is a whole lot better than none at all.

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  15. What about using the new DJI Spark for commercial photogrammetry purposes of buildings. At 300g it’s pushing the 250g limit. Why 250g? It’s so easy to fly everyone will be buying one. How many SFOC’s does TC want for a 300g drone?

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  16. The new rules are extremely prohibitive. n digging a little deeper into the quagmire that is the Transport Canada site, if you are flying drones for non-recreational purposes (i.e. you run a commercial operation) it looks like you can apply for an SFOC exemption

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