With drones advancing at an accelerated rate, there is some uncertainty regarding their operation in Canada. As a result, the Canadian government is taking further action towards the regulation of drones. Here are three things you need to know:

1. UAVs Must Meet Equivalent Safety Levels that Exist for Manned Aircraft

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

2. Guidance Introduced to Bring Process More In Line with Changing Technology

In late 2014, TCA issued a staff instruction regarding 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 also in respect of UAV operations in Canada. Similar to the staff instruction, 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 staff instruction and advisory circular 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 them. The staff instruction 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).

3. Government Taking Further Steps to Keep Up with Rapidly Evolving Industry

While the exemptions created under the staff instruction and advisory circular 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 Regulation Advisory Council issued a notice of proposed amendment in respect of UAVs, which 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
  2. The requirement for UAV pilots to obtain a pilot permit from TCA.

This is consistent with the staff instruction, which notes that while TCA does not currently issue 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 drones in Canada, they are a step in the right direction.