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Drones in Canada: Hobbyist Restrictions Eased, Licensing Requirements, and What We Might See Next

BY Zacc Dukowitz
12 July 2017

With the Taylor court decision now in effect, hobbyist drone owners in the U.S. no longer have to register themselves or pay a $5 fee.

Hobbyist pilots in the U.S. can erase their registration and get a full refund of the registration fee they paid by completing this form and mailing it to the FAA (the mailing address is on the form).

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Canada also recently eased regulations for sUAS hobbyists, and today we’re going to take a closer look at the Canadian regulatory scene.

We’ll start with the changes that recently took place for hobbyists, then look at commercial licensing requirements, and finish with what we might expect to see in the future for Canadian drone regulations.

A note to our Canadian community members—in a recent community update we were writing to you from Canada on Canada Day and totally forgot to mention it. Doh! Please accept our apology for the oversight.

Hobbyist Rules in Canada

To understand why the easing of hobbyist restrictions that recently took place in Canada was such a big deal, it’s important to understand the regulatory background that preceded this change.

Back in March, Transport Canada released new rules for hobbyist drone pilots flying aircraft weighing between 250 grams (about half a pound) and 35 kilograms (77 pounds).

Under these new rules, violators would now face fines up to $3,000 Canadian, or about $2,248 U.S.—more than double the amount hobbyists might face for comparable infractions in the U.S.

The new regulations were pretty severe. Under them you couldn’t fly:

  • Higher than 90 meters (300 ft.) above the ground
  • At a distance of more than 500 meters (1,640 ft.) from the operator
  • Within 75 meters (246 ft.) of buildings, vehicles, vessels, animals, people or crowds
  • At night or in the clouds
  • Within 9 km (5.6 miles) from the center of an airport or other facility where aircraft takeoff or within 9 km of forest fires
  • If your drone didn’t have your name, address, and telephone number labeled on the aircraft

These changes seemed extreme to many in the industry, and prompted an outcry. DJI said in a prepared statement that the rules “had effectively barred drones from flying in most settled parts of Canada.”

This tweet Sally French posted recently from back then sums up the frustration people were feeling:


All of this helps us understand why there was a huge sense of relief when Transport Canada released revisions to these rules a few weeks back, which eased many of the restrictions for hobbyists. (Check out all of the changes here.)

One of the most significant changes in the latest rules for Canadian hobbyists has to do with how far drones can fly from vehicles and people.

This distance was originally 30 meters (98 feet), which meant flying in even somewhat inhabited areas would be virtually impossible. But that distance has now been expanded to 75 meters, a more realistic allowance for those flying anywhere near a town or city.

These changes are being applauded by Canadian drone owners, and by the international drone community at large. Looks like that fancy boat anchor can once again take flight. 🙂

That being said, the final word on hobbyist drone regulations is still pending in Canada, since these and the previous rules are part of an Interim Order. Big changes may still be coming for hobbyists, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The Canadian Drone Certification Process

To fly drones commercially in the U.S., the FAA requires that you pass the Part 107 exam and meet a few other fairly minimal requirements, like being 16 or older and passing a TSA check.

The Canadian drone certification process requires pilots to go further, and attend classes certified by Transport Canada, as well as requiring more in-depth knowledge about flying and aeronautics.

Canadian drone regulations exist under a permitting process called the Special Flight Operations Certificate, or SFOC. This is the same process used to approve special aviation events, like air shows, that would otherwise not be allowed under Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs).

The SFOC process is essentially a set of rules that deal with sUAS regulations for now, while a new set of CARs is pending, which will incorporate drones into the Canadian regulatory apparatus along with all of the complexity they require.

We should be clear that new CARs are not expected any time soon, which is a good thing.

Transport Canada and Canada’s legislative bodies are waiting until there is enough knowledge gathered before passing new legislation regarding drones. For now, the SFOC is the law of the land when it comes to sUAS use in Canada.

One key aspect of the SFOC is that it includes a defined list of Best Practices, as compiled by Transport Canada through surveys of industry leaders and experienced UAV pilots.

Those Best Practices fall into three categories:

  • Pilot
  • UAV system design standard
  • Operator requirements

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Under special conditions, commercial drone pilots can obtain an exemption from obtaining the SFOC, but even pilots who get the exemption have to attend ground school training that is compliant with Transport Canada’s requirements for such training.

Future applicants for a Pilot Permit – Small UAV Systems – Restricted to VLOS will be required to complete a course of training and will be required to prove their knowledge by writing an examination . . .

Transport Canada

Another noteworthy difference between the U.S. and Canada is that liability insurance is mandatory for all commercial drone pilots in Canada.

What We Might See Next

Not too long ago Canada still had not issued a single waiver for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights, which the FAA has been researching through its Pathfinder Program for several years now. But change has been coming about in Canada, and rather quickly, over the last few months.

One significant step forward when it comes to Canadian drone regulations is their Compliant UAV Operator list, which allows professional UAV operators, including companies with fleets of trained pilots, to gain additional flight privileges from Transport Canada. (Being on the Compliant UAV Operators list is a prerequisite for applying to get a BVLOS waiver.)

Although the list of Compliant Operators is still fairly short, the fact that it exists and that there is a path forward for operators to pursue BVLOS waivers is a promising sign.

The value of being able to fly out of sight can’t be exaggerated. Once it is generally allowed, we can expect to see an explosion in new UAV applications and a lot more work for existing UAV applications (inspections, agriculture, search & rescue . . . the list of possible use cases and the ways in which these uses could be generally helpful to people is huge).

Given all of the current uncertainty in the U.S. about the future of regulations and the drone industry, it is reassuring to see our neighbor in the north making steady—albeit cautious—progress forward.

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