Canada’s New Drone Regulations Take Effect: How They Compare to the U.S. Regulations

Canada’s drone industry is taking off. Like its neighbor to the south, the commercial remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) industry is growing quickly. In Canada, the industry has doubled in size every two years over the past decade. The economic impact of the expanding commercial drone industry in Canada and the U.S. is expected to surpass $7 billion by 2024.

While the economic impact and societal benefits of commercial drone use in Canada are significant, Canadian regulators are grappling with the same questions faced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S.: How do you enable the continued safe expansion of commercial drone use while ensuring the safety and security of the public?

Earlier this month, Canada’s Regulations Amending the Canadian Aviation Regulations (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) went into effect. The new regulations cover “small” drones, or RPAS, that (1) weigh between 250 grams (0.55 lbs.) and 25 kg (~55 lbs.) and (2) are operated within the pilot’s visual-line-of-sight. The operation of drones weighing more than 25 kg requires a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC).

Below is a short summary of Canada’s new drone regulations and a look at how they compare to drone regulations in the United States.

Summary of Canada’s New Drone Rules

Canada’s rules set basic requirements for all drones flown in the national airspace, regardless of operator intent. For instance, all drones must be registered with Transport Canada and clearly marked with their registration number before they are flown. Additionally, all drones must generally be flown at an altitude of less than 122 meters (400 feet), and must not be flown over or within the security perimeter established by a public authority in response to an emergency, or at “advertised events”, such as outdoor concerts, festivals, or market or sporting events unless the operator is granted a SFOC. For those who violate these rules, penalties include fines and incarceration.

The new rules also overhaul the categorization of drone pilot certificates. Instead of issuing different certificates for drones used for recreational purposes or commercial purposes, and focusing on operator intent like the U.S. rules do, the new rules create two certificates based on the type of drone operation: one for “basic operations” and one for “advanced operations.”

Basic operations are operations that are conducted outside of controlled airspace, more than 30 meters (100 feet) away horizontally from bystanders, and more than 3 nautical miles from an airport (or 1 nautical mile from a heliport). To conduct basic operations, a pilot must be at least 14 years old, complete an online knowledge exam, and obtain a pilot certificate for basic operations.

Advanced operations are operations that are conducted: (1) within controlled airspace (with air traffic control approval), (2) closer than 30 meters horizontally to bystanders or (3) within 3 nautical miles from an airport (or 1 nautical mile from a heliport). To conduct advanced operations, a pilot must be at least 16 years old, complete an online knowledge exam, complete a flight review with a Transport Canada-approved training provider, and obtain a pilot certificate for advanced operations.

For certain types of advanced operations, the drone must meet RPAS Safety Assurance standards before being flown. This standard describes the technical requirements manufacturers are required to meet in order to make a declaration necessary for the drone to be used in advanced operations. For operations in controlled airspace, the manufacturer of the drone must certify that the drone meets certain minimum lateral and altitude position accuracy. For operations “near” people, the manufacturer must certify that the occurrence of any single failure of the drone which may result in a severe injury to a person on the ground within 30 meters of the operation must be shown to be “remote.” For operations “over” people, the manufacturer must certify that no single failure of the drone may result in a severe injury to a person on the ground within 5 meters horizontal of the operation, and that the occurrence of any combination of failures of the drone which may result in a severe injury to a person on the ground within 5 horizontal meters of the operation must be shown to be remote. A list of RPAS models eligible for certain advanced operations is available here.

Canadian Drone Regulations v. U.S. Drone Regulations

There are many similarities between the Canadian and U.S. regulatory regimes for the operation of small drones. For instance, both countries generally cap the altitude of a flying drone to 400 feet, define small drones as those weighing between 250 grams and ~55 pounds, and do not require an operator to obtain liability insurance. Both regulatory regimes also prohibit beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations without obtaining additional regulatory approvals. In Canada, BVLOS operations can only be conducted under a SFOC and in the U.S. a Part 107 waiver is required. Canada’s SFOC process is very similar to the FAA’s Part 107 waiver process.

One key difference between the two regulatory regimes is operations over people. The new Canadian regulations permit operations over people (defined as operations at a distance of less than 5 meters horizontally and at any altitude) provided that the manufacturer of the drone makes the required declarations and the other requirements for “advanced operations” are complied with. The U.S. regulations currently prohibit operations over people (defined as directly over a person) unless an appropriate waiver has been obtained from the FAA. To-date, the FAA has only issued 33 such waivers. The FAA recently published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for drone operations over people, however that rulemaking process is not expected to be finalized any time in the near future.

In addition, as noted above, unlike the U.S. regulatory framework, the Canadian regulations do not distinguish between recreational or commercial drone uses. Finally, the Canadian regulations require pilots to demonstrate flight proficiency for advanced operations, whereas the U.S. regulations only require commercial operators to pass an aeronautical knowledge exam.