If you own a drone, or are looking to buy one for recreational purposes, new rules on how, when and where to fly them are now in effect. Here’s what you need to know before you take to the skies.
The new Transport Canada regulations were announced on March 16 by Minister Marc Garneau, who cited safety as the primary reason for rolling back some of the previous looser rules. These updated rules are in effect for a period of up to one year, so changes could take place within the next 12 months. Or the government may recalibrate at that time with a new set of regulations that compromise on some of the restrictions.
Setting flight limits
These new regulations apply to flying drones “for fun” and for models weighing between 250 grams to 77 pounds. Within those limits, you don’t need to apply for permission with Transport Canada to fly.
What you do need to do, however, is stick to the guidelines outlined here:
- Don’t fly higher than 90 metres above the ground
- Don’t fly closer than 75 metres from buildings, vehicles, people and animals
- Don’t fly closer than 9 km from the centre of any airport, heliport, seaplane base or any spot where aircraft takeoff and land
- Don’t fly within a controlled or restricted airspace (drone software generally includes this anyway)
- Don’t fly within 9 km of a forest fire
- Don’t fly where it could interfere with police or first responders
- Don’t fly at night or in clouds
- Fly only within 500 metres and within sight at all times
- Make sure your name, address, and telephone number are clearly marked on your drone
The fine for breaking any of these rules is $3,000. Staying away from forest fires, law enforcement or first responders seem like no-brainers, so those are unlikely to affect most people flying drones for fun. The others are more impactful.
The 9 km distance from airports was already in place before, only the penalties and limits on altitude are more draconian this time. By default, drone manufacturers build in restrictions to 500 feet, which is in line with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) guidelines in the United States. Transport Canada has limited it to 90 metres, which is 295 feet. Drones also have software that restricts flying in designated restricted airspace, so that is another one that is simply a carryover from before.
Flying 75 metres, or 246 feet, away from buildings, vehicles, people and animals is also not that different from before, except that the onus was more on buildings before. “People and animals” is fairly vague, and could imply that large crowds would be no-go areas without a permit. Flying in a park with a few solitary people walking around might not seem so bad, especially if there is no likelihood of the drone coming in contact with anyone.
A more detailed list of the government’s provisions can be found here.
Can you still fly a drone?
The interesting part of this is that the new rules affect city-dwellers more than rural residents for the simple reason there are more people and obstructions in urban areas. Farmers who use drones to inspect crops from above will probably have nothing to worry about if they are in open country where buildings and people are fewer and further between. Still, notifying Transport Canada in advance may be a good idea to ensure any exemptions.
Transport Canada inspectors are the ones who investigate reports of illegal or unsafe drone use. While local law enforcement can be called in, it is more likely to happen in cases where a crime or privacy matter is involved. The language in that part of the rules is not entirely clear, meaning if police catch you flying a drone in a public park, they may have the authority for you to stop, but not to write you a ticket, for instance.
Capturing your children playing in the backyard of your own home at low altitude also seems innocent enough. Technically, it would be illegal under these rules though. Enforcing those rules under those circumstances, however, seems difficult, unless someone complains.
Pilots who want to use drones for professional purposes, or are operating models above 77 pounds, will need to file for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) with Transport Canada. This is required for a variety of commercial operations, be it real estate, wedding photography or filmmaking.
You can opt to apply for what’s being called a “Standing SFOC” which assesses your piloting ability and safety record, yet removes the need to keep applying for new certificates each time. That process begins by contacting the Civil Aviation Regional Offices.
Learning the ropes
Transport Canada has no approval process toward, nor does it endorse drone flight schools or programs. If you’ve earned a certificate from one, they won’t care. However, it would ostensibly help make a stronger case for a Standing SFOC. Many of the reported drone incidents to date may have been due to piloting inexperience, though the regulatory body doesn’t say one way or another.
Despite the clear-cut numbers and limits, there is some murky territory here, particularly as it relates to what is or isn’t dangerous. For example, flying only 30 metres high in a city park early in the morning when no one is around seems harmless, despite the technicalities that make it illegal.
No one would suggest breaking the law is a good idea, and there’s no advocacy involved here. What you choose to do when flying is entirely up to you, so long as you respect the rules and regulations and practice safe piloting at all times. Avoid being reckless and stay out of harm’s way, and you’re more likely to enjoy the experience. The settings in drone apps usually have sections where you can apply manual limits in line with the rules if you want to make sure you don’t stray too high or far.