Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones”, are increasing in popularity with recreational and commercial users. Several high-profile incidents, which saw UAVs come into close proximity with commercial airliners, have prompted airport authorities to create “no drone zones”, further highlighting the need for the regulation of both UAVs and their operators.


The United States have made some headway in regulating drones this past quarter. On June 21, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released new regulations for UAVs, which came into force at the end of August. The FAA regulations apply to UAVs weighing less than 25 kilograms that are operated within visual line-of-sight (VLOS). Notably, the FAA regulations require operators to hold a remote pilot airman certificate. To obtain a certificate, an operator must demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by passing an FAA-approved examination. The FAA regulations prohibit UAVs from being flown over any persons not directly participating in the operation, and prohibit flights at night. Additionally, the FAA regulations provide for a maximum groundspeed of 87 knots, and require that UAVs operate at an altitude not higher than 400 feet. The FAA regulations go a long way to ensuring that hobbyists operating drones do so safely, protecting both airspace users and those on the ground.


In Canada, UAVs are regulated by Transport Canada, the federal aviation regulator. In May 2015, Transport Canada issued proposed regulations for UAVs weighing 25 kilograms or less. Initially anticipated in the second half of 2016, Transport Canada now says that the new regulations are not expected to be finalized until the first half of 2017. In the meantime, Transport Canada’s current regulatory framework will continue to apply to UAVs and their operators.

Depending on UAV size and use, Transport Canada requires the operator to obtain a special flight operations certificate (SFOC). To obtain an SFOC, an applicant must give Transport Canada a description of how, when, and where the applicant plans to use the unmanned air vehicle, along with a detailed plan outlining how the applicant will deal with safety risks. In general, SFOCs must be obtained each time an unmanned air vehicle is to be flown. However, once an operator establishes a track record of safe operation, Transport Canada may grant SFOCs that allow for multiple operations.

If an UAV is not used for commercial purposes and weighs less than 25 kilograms, it is exempt from the SFOC requirement. Operators, however, must still abide by a general catch-all provision that prohibits model aircraft from being flown in a manner that is likely to be hazardous to aviation safety.

Operators who use UAVs heavier than 25 kilograms for commercial purposes must have an SFOC. However, there are exceptions to the SFOC requirement for commercial operations within VLOS if the UAV either:

  • Weighs two kilograms or less, provided the operator meets certain conditions, including subscribing for liability insurance of at least C$100,000 and operating the UAV at least five nautical miles away from a built up area
  • Weighs between two and 25 kilograms, has a calibrated airspeed of 87 knots or less, and is operated away from built-up areas, airspace and other restricted locations, provided the operator meets certain conditions, including successfully completing a pilot ground school program and meeting the liability insurance requirements

Both exemptions are scheduled to expire in December 2016.


Transport Canada’s proposed regulations, now expected in the first half of 2017, would apply to all UAVs that weigh 25 kilograms or less (small UAVs) and are operated within VLOS, a requirement identical to those in the new FAA regulations. Unlike the current regulations, the proposed regulations do not distinguish between commercial and recreational use. Rather, the proposed regulations differentiate between complex and limited operations. Complex operations would be defined as those that occur in urban or built-up areas, while limited operations occur in remote areas. It is anticipated that small UAV operators undertaking complex operations would need to hold a pilot permit issued by Transport Canada, while small UAV operators undertaking limited operations would not. Transport Canada proposes that pilots applying for a permit complete a course in aviation, acquire practical training, and demonstrate competency in performing normal and emergency maneuvers with the small UAV. Additionally, all small UAVs would need to be marked and registered with Transport Canada. Manufacturers of small UAVs would also be required to meet a design standard, which would include requirements for flight performance, structure, systems and equipment, and launch and recovery systems.

While the proposed regulations present a welcome upgrade from a safety perspective, many operators will still be left under the current framework. Notably, anyone wishing to operate an UAV beyond VLOS, or to fly an UAV that is heavier than 25 kilograms, is required to go through the SFOC process.