Many of Canada’s cities have effectively become “no-fly zones” for recreational drone users as a result of a recent extraordinary measure taken by the Minister of Transport.

On March 13, 2017, Canada’s Transport Minister Marc Garneau issued an “Interim Order Respecting the Use of Model Aircraft.” The Order applies to “model aircraft,” which includes any unmanned aircraft that is not used for a commercial, academic, or research purpose whose total weight is more than 250 grams (0.55 pounds) but not more than 35 Kg (77.2 pounds). Operators of drones for commercial, academic or research purposes are already regulated in Canada.

The Order, and specifically the requirement that drones must be flown at a distance of 9km (5nm) from any airports or helipads has effectively shut down recreational drone flights over large portions of Canada’s largest cities. This is in addition to any bylaws or rules imposed by local authorities. For instance, the majority of Toronto has now effectively become a no-fly zone due to the proximity of three airports around the city. The rules also affect recreational use in Canada’s northern and remote communities where the vast majority of such communities are serviced by, and are situated very near to, airports.

The stated purpose of the Order is to “deal with the significant risk, direct or indirect, to aviation safety or the safety of the public.” This language directly tracks the extraordinary rule-making provisions in the Aeronautics Act, relied on by the Minister to implement these measures, with immediate effect. The impetus for the Order may well reflect findings by Transport Canada that the number of reported incidents involving drones and commercial aircraft has more than tripled – from 41 in 2014 to 148 in 2016.

The Order codifies some of Transport Canada’s previous guidelines respecting the safe operation of recreational drones, but adds serious penalties in cases of contravention. A person now caught breaking the rules could face a fine of up to $3,000; companies could face a fine of up to $15,000 for each contravention. Previously, there were no specific penalties for contravening the guidelines.

Pilots may now be fined if they are caught flying their recreational drones:

  1. at an altitude of more than 90m (300 feet) above ground level;
  2. within 75m (250 feet) of buildings, structures, vehicles, vessels, animals and the public including spectators, bystanders or any person not associated with the operation of the aircraft;
  3. within 9 km (5nm) of the centre of any airport, heliport, aerodrome or water aerodrome where aircraft take off and land;
  4. within controlled airspace;
  5. within restricted airspace;
  6. over or within a forest fire area, or any area that is located within 9 km (5nm) of a forest fire area;
  7. over or within the security perimeter of a police or first responder emergency operation site;
  8. over or within an open-air assembly of persons;
  9. at night; or
  10. in cloud.

Pilots must also have, at all times, an unaided visual line of sight to their drone, sufficient to be able to maintain control of the aircraft and avoid potential collisions. In an attempt to ensure compliance with this requirement, the Order specifically provides that no pilot may fly their drone at a lateral distance of more than 500m (1640 feet) from their location.

In order to identify owners of drones found operating outside the regulations, recreational users will be required to have their name, address and telephone number clearly marked on their drones. A question not addressed by the Order is whether or not drone manufacturers will have to facilitate this by providing an area on the drone where the marking can be placed such that it won’t interfere with the drone’s overall airworthiness.

The impact of the Order will be felt most by the drone hobbyist community and, by extension, manufacturers and suppliers of recreational drones. Notably, the Order exempts members of the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC) in good standing who operate at MAAC sanctioned fields or events, who are not subject to the new rules.

The Minister’s use of this extraordinary rule-making authority in the Aeronautics Act is not without precedent. However, previous orders dealt with potentially imminent risks to aviation safety or were designed to prevent a repeat of catastrophic events.

For instance, an interim order was issued to prohibit individuals from taking liquids aboard passenger flights after an attack was attempted using a liquid explosive on a 2006 transatlantic flight. Similarly, an interim order was issued forbidding office-sized toner cartridges from being placed in checked bags after bombs were found in similar devices in the UK and the UAE in 2010. Rules about how many crew members had to be in a plane’s flight deck were also enacted after the 2015 Germanwings crash in the Alps.

The Order took effect immediately and is deemed to have the full force of a regulation. On approval of the Governor in Council, the Order will be in effect for up to a year, while more permanent regulations are put in place.