Operating in Canada

Transport Canada Aviation (TCA) is responsible for aeronautical safety in Canada. As such, it regulates the conduct of civil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for both commercial and private use. In Canada, UAVs must meet the equivalent levels of safety as exist for manned aircraft.

In general, Canadian aviation regulations apply to UAVs that have a total weight in excess of 35 kilograms (77.2 pounds) or to UAVs driven or launched into flight for purposes other than recreational use. In respect    of UAVs meeting these criteria, unless the UAV operations qualify for another  exemption,  a  Special  Flight  Operation  Certificate  (SFOC)  must be obtained from TCA. An SFOC must be obtained for each and every flight, although a “blanket SFOC” can be obtained for certain operations, especially when a safety track record has been established with TCA.   While there is no formal application for an SFOC, in general, it should contain information pertaining to the qualification and experience of the operator, detailed specifications about the UAV, including drawings where applicable, the proposed operation plan and, most importantly, the applicable safety precautions and emergency plan.

Regulatory Quick Fix

In late 2014, TCA issued a staff instruction (SI) in respect of UAV  operations in Canada. A staff instruction does not have the force of law but does provide TCA officials with guidance as to how to implement     the law.  In addition, TCA issued an advisory circular (AC)  also in respect   of UAV operations in Canada. Similar to the SI, an advisory circular does not have the force of law. Instead, an advisory circular serves to provide general guidance and explanatory information to the general   public.

The goal of the SI and AC was to ensure that the SFOC process was more in line with the changing technology of UAVs and the type of operations being conducted with UAVs. The SI eliminates the need for SFOCs in respect of small UAVs in certain circumstances. The exemptions for UAV operations are in respect of UAVs with (1) a maximum take-off weight not exceeding two kilograms (4.6 pounds) (Light Exemption) or (2) a maximum take-off weight exceeding two kilograms (4.6 pounds) but not exceeding 25 kilograms (55.1 pounds) (Heavy Exemption).

Keeping Up with Technology

While the exemptions created under the SI and AC have assisted in processing  the  backlog  of  SFOC  applications,  the  current  regulatory regime is incompatible with the rapidly evolving UAV industry. Fortunately, the government agrees. In 2015, the Canadian Aviation Regulations   Advisory  Council  issued  a  notice  of  proposed  amendment  (NPA)  in respect of UAVs. The NPA announced that TCA intended to revise the regulatory regime as it relates to UAVs 25 kilograms or less that are  operated within visual line-of-sight. There are two main changes: (1) the requirement for such UAVs to be marked and registered with TCA and (2) the requirement for UAV pilots to obtain a pilot permit from TCA. This is consistent with the SI which notes that, while TCA does not currentlyissue air operator certificates for UAV operations, such certificates will likely be the subject of future regulatory developments. While these proposed changes do not address all of the regulatory issues   in operating UAVs in Canada, they are a step in the right direction.