Canada’s new drone regulations: Greater regulatory certainty achieved with permissive approach to incorporating drones into airspace

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The final version of Canada’s new regulations for visual-line-of-sight operations for drones weighing between 250g and 25kg, were introduced by Transport Canada in January 2019. These regulations constitute significant revisions to the proposed version of the regulations that were prepared and released in July 2017 (a summary of the proposed version can be found here). The new Part IX to the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) mostly come into force on June 1, 2019.

It was high time to update Canada’s drone regulations. Transport Canada acknowledged this need in the Regulatory Impact Statement accompanying the regulations, noting that “…the existing Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) do not provide a regulatory framework that promotes the economic potential of RPAS nor does it contain modern, risk- and performance-based regulations that can uphold aviation safety.”

Key features of the new regulations

Transport Canada’s stated objectives for the new regulations are to i) create regulatory predictability for business, and ii) reduce the risk to aviation safety caused by drones. Rather than regulating operations based on the purpose of the drone flight, the rules introduce a permissive, risk-based approach that focuses on creating regulatory certainty for business and mitigating the safety risks posed by drones. The new set of rules are expected to create a more predictable and safer environment by imposing knowledge and training requirements on drone pilots, manufacturing standards for drones, and flight and safety procedures.

The key features of the new regulations are:

  1. Operations are divided into only two categories: “basic” and “advanced”
    • Basic – operations outside controlled airspace and more than 30m away from people; and
    • Advanced – operations within controlled airspace, near people (up to within 5m of people), over people and within certain distances of airports and heliports.
  2. Pilots must be certified
    • Minimum age requirements for pilots will be in place;
    • Pilots must undergo a knowledge test and/or certification process (depending on the category of operation); and
    • Recency requirements will apply to pilots conducting both basic and advanced operations.
  3. Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOC) are not generally required
    • Pilot knowledge requirements and certification are the focus in this new permissive regime rather than the current SFOC process, which requires government approval of each individual operation; and
    • SFOCs must still be obtained for certain operations (such as flights by foreign operators, drones weighing more than 25kg and drones operated beyond visual line of sight).
  4. Drones must be registered
    • Drones must be registered with Transport Canada, and display an assigned registration number or call sign.
  5. Insurance is no longer required
    • Insurance applicable to drone operations is now “encouraged” rather than required.
  6. Safety-based manufacturing requirements apply to drones flown for certain operations
    • Drones used for advanced operations must comply with Standard 922 – RPAS Safety Assurance; and
    • Drones previously approved by Transport Canada for operations will be “grandfathered” for the life of the equipment for use in advanced operations.
  7. Service fees to conduct compliant drone operations will apply
    • Pilot exams, pilot certification and drone registration will require the payment of service fees to Transport Canada.

Gender neutrality in terminology

Transport Canada has chosen to use the technical term of “remotely piloted aircraft systems” (RPAS) throughout the regulations, instead of “unmanned aircraft” or “drones”. RPAS was favoured because it is gender neutral and reflects the fact that a pilot is controlling the aircraft from the ground.

What is the upshot of the new regulations?

Overall, the new regulations create a clearer regulatory landscape for drone operations in Canada. Once a pilot is certified and flying a drone that is compliant with Transport Canada’s safety standards, the operator is free to use this emerging technology as they see fit – ideally, to innovate and generate business opportunities.

The near removal of the SFOC requirement is a boon for drone operators in Canada. Even though there will be more formal administrative requirements for pilot certification and drone registration, the delays and administrative burden caused by the need to obtain approval for each flight will largely be a thing of the past.

Requirements like the registration of drones, for example, pave the way toward beyond visual operations and a system of air traffic management that integrates drones into airspace with conventional aviation.

Apparent in the regulations is that safety is paramount for Transport Canada. With Canadian skies buzzing with five times more drone flights than conventional aviation (including commercial and cargo carriers), creating a regulatory framework to ensure drone pilots and their equipment meet safety standards is necessary. However, regulations made by the government are not a complete answer. Stakeholders (which extend beyond the drone industry to the entire aviation industry) will need to be involved to create an environment where drones and conventional aircraft can safely co-exist.

For more information about these amendments, or about drone regulation in general, please contact Kathryn McCulloch or a member of our Aviation team.