Canada: Do You Have A Permit For That Drone?

Last Updated: August 17 2016
Article by Gregory Liakopoulos and Micaela Zila

In our last post we talked about some of the key things to consider before flying a drone over a real estate or construction site. Even with these general considerations in mind, however, the fear of fines under the complex Canadian regulatory framework for aircraft safety may still leave business owners and enthusiasts unsure about how to incorporate drone technology into their operations safely and legally.

This article clarifies some of the Canadian regulations for commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—more commonly known as drones—and provides specific information on how to determine if you need a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from the Minister of Transport.

What is a Special Flight Operations Certificate?

A Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) is a permit that outlines the conditions under which a flight may be operated. It usually authorizes a flight for a set purpose in a specific geographical area. In order to determine whether or not you need an SFOC for your flight, you must consider the purpose of your operation and the weight of your drone.

How to Determine the Purpose of Your Drone Flight

The first thing to consider before applying for an SFOC is the purpose of your flight. It will either be recreational or commercial in nature. The differentiators are as follows:

Recreational Use

Recreational users of drones under the weight threshold of thirty-five (35) kg do not need to apply for a permit; however, they are subject to aviation laws governing model aircraft in Canadian airspace as well as any other applicable privacy, trespass, or criminal laws.

If you are using your drone for recreational purposes and it is more than thirty-five (35) kg you must apply for an SFOC.

Transport Canada measures weight based on the total take-off weight which means the weight of the aircraft at the time of the operation, including any cargo and fuel. This includes batteries and camera equipment, so be sure to know the requirements that apply to your drone based on the weight of the drone and its load.

Commercial Use

Drones that are being flown for commercial purposes typically require an SFOC; however, there are certain conditions that will exempt commercial users from needing an SFOC. In order to fly under an exemption, drone operators must carry a copy of the exemption on their person while operating the drone.

How to Know if Your Drone Flight is Exempt

There are two classifications of exemptions for commercial drones. The exemption condition that applies to your flight depends on the take-off weight of your drone as follows:

If the weight of your commercial drone is less than two (2) kg, an exemption is granted, but you must:

  • Operate the drone within the visual line of sight*.
  • Operate the drone away from built-up areas.
  • Operate the drone away from controlled airspaces.
  • Comply with all other conditions.

If the maximum take-off weight of your commercial drone is between two (2) kg and twenty-five (25) kg, your flight may be exempt if the following conditions are met:

  • The flight is not likely to affect aviation safety adversely.
  • The maximum airspeed is eighty-seven (87) knots or less.
  • You operate the drone within your visual line of sight*.
  • You have notified Transport Canada by completing the online notification form.
  • You have completed a pilot ground school program.
  • You comply with all other conditions.

If any of these conditions are not met, or if the take-off weight of your drone is over thirty-five (35) kg, the drone operation will require an SFOC.

*Note: visual line of sight is not a set distance; it varies depending on weather conditions and other geographical obstructions. If you want to operate the drone beyond your visual line of sight, an SFOC is required.

How to Apply for a Special Flight Operations Certificate

As mentioned above, if your drone is over thirty-five (35) kg or being used for commercial purposes that are not covered by exemption conditions, you must apply for an SFOC from the Minister of Transport. These certificates are free-of-charge, but you will need to plan ahead.

You must submit your application to the appropriate Regional Transport Canada General Aviation office at least twenty (20) days before the date of the proposed operation, so make sure you leave yourself enough time to get approved. The application request will also ask questions related to the altitudes, routes, boundaries and the purpose of your operation as well as the dates and alternate dates of your flight. Be sure to include all of this information and any other Transport Canada requirements in your completed application.

SFOCs are usually good for one flight only. However, frequent users may apply for blanket authorizations (Standing SFOCs) where they can demonstrate the ability to safely and responsibly control the drone. Standing SFOCs may be granted for a period of up to one (1) year.

Don't Forget to Keep Your Permits With You

Even if the exemption conditions above are met, drone operators must carry a copy of the exemption on their person while flying the drone. You must also have the following documentation available (upon request) for a peace officer, police officer, or Transport Canada inspector:

Stay Informed and Stay Safe!

These new rules are intended to replace the current exemption regulations and are expected to be in place by the end of the year. Regardless of the purpose or weight of your drone, be sure to avoid "no drone zones" and respect aviation safety. We'll explore these issues in our next article of this series. Over and out.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Gregory Liakopoulos
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