A look at Transport Canada’s updated drone regulations

Aerial drone regulations released

Last week, Transport Canada quietly issued an update to its interim order governing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs, which include consumer and professional drones.

The previous order, which went into effect on March 16th of this year, imposed harsh restrictions on when and where Canadians could operate their drones, effectively grounding their aircraft in most populated areas of the country. It mandated that no recreational user could fly their UAV:

  • Higher than 90m above the ground
  • Closer than 75m from buildings, vehicles, vessels, animals, people/crowds, etc.
  • Closer than 9km from the centre of an aerodrome (any airport, heliport, seaplane base or anywhere that aircraft
  • take-off and land)
  • Within controlled or restricted airspace
  • Within 9km of a forest fire
  • Where it could interfere with police or first responders

The rules surprised many, including amateur drone enthusiasts, professionals, and industry players. They also prompted a strong backlash from drone owners, who signed online petitions, wrote to the Minister of Transport as well as their local MPs, and joined an online group called NODE, created by Chinese drone company, DJI, for the purpose of making their voices heard.

These efforts were apparently successful. The new rules — published via this undated PDF — adjust the limitations imposed by the March announcement, using the following language:

You can now fly your drone:

  • Within 90 m above the ground or lower
  • 30m away from vehicles, vessels, and the public (if your drone weighs more than 250g up to 1kg)
  • 75m away from vehicles, vessels, and the public (if your drone weighs more than 1kg up to 35kg)
  • 5.5km from aerodromes (any airport, seaplane base, or areas where aircraft take-off and land)
  • 1.8km away from heliports or aerodromes used exclusively by helicopters outside of controlled or restricted airspace
  • At least 9 km away from a natural hazard or disaster area
  • Away from areas where it could interfere with police or first responders
  • During the day and not in clouds
  • Within your sight at all times
  • Within 500 m of yourself or closer
  • Only if clearly marked with your name, address and telephone number

The most notable changes are:

  • The elimination of distance restrictions to buildings and animals
  • The reduction of distance restrictions to vehicles, vessels and the public for drones weighing more than 250 grams but less than 1kg
  • The reduction of distance restrictions to aerodromes and heliports for drones weighing up to 35kg

The new rules represent a softening of Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau’s previous hard-line stance on the use of drones in Canada, which he has characterized as being appropriate, saying, “When it comes to safety, I don’t think anything is overkill.”

MobileSyrup reached out to two Canadian drone community groups on Facebook, to see if amateur pilots are satisfied with the changes. “It’s definitely positive and a step in the right direction,” said George Samaras, a member of Toronto Phantom Pilots — a reference to DJI’s popular quadcopter series — “however more work needs to be done.”

This map shows the previous distance restriction for flying recreational drones near Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport (outer red circle – 9km) and the new restrictions (inner red circle – 5.5 km). 

Meanwhile, Toronto DJI Drones member Luyi Wang, reacted positively to the reduced safe distance from aerodromes, saying, “With the new rules kicking into place, the GTA drone community is no longer officially grounded.”

Group members suggested that further changes to drone rules should be made that take into account the vastly different sizes and weights of available drones on the market. Currently, the government only recognizes three categories: Under 250 grams, which is essentially unregulated; between 250 grams and 1 kg; and between 1 kg and 35 kg. “We need to make the laws less restrictive for drones weighing under 2 kg,” Samaras said.

Another Toronto DJI Drones member, Chris Zarras, summarized a key complaint of drone enthusiasts — the seeming lack of familiarity with the drone community on the part of lawmakers — saying, “We need the government to do more than just make small tweaks, they need to actually have responsible [amateur] pilots be at the table to gather their feedback.”

Last week, in response to the revised rules, DJI issued a press release offering cautious praise: “While DJI believes some of the restrictions in the new Interim Order can be further improved in draft regulations expected to be released soon, it appreciates Minister Garneau’s efforts to respond to the concerns of safe and responsible drone pilots.”

Earlier in the month, at the Canadian launch of its new drone, the DJI Spark, Adam Lisberg, DJI’s corporate communication director for North America, expressed frustration with Transport Canada’s rules, noting that they would do nothing to prevent drone pilots from flying recklessly if that’s what they were determined to do, while they penalized the “overwhelming majority” of drone pilots who fly safely.

Lisberg further claimed that there has never been a recorded incident of a drone coming into contact with a commercial aircraft.

Image credit: ACSCDG