New drone regulations expected from Transport Canada in 2016

In May 2015, Transport Canada sought comments from aviation stakeholders across Canada regarding a Notice of Proposed Amendment on Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.  For some time, Transport Canada has intended to implement new regulations for certain types of UAVs and their operations. These will replace the current “exemption” scheme, which was intended to be a temporary solution while Transport Canada introduced more rigorous safety requirements and created greater awareness of UAV operators’ legal obligations.

Presently, the Canadian Aviation Regulations (“CARs”) require that a UAV operator obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate (“SFOC”) from Transport Canada. However, there are certain exemptions to these requirements, the applicability of which depends on two main factors: the weight of the UAV and whether the UAV is being used for recreational or non-recreational (including research) purposes.


If a UAV is 35 kg or under and is being used solely for recreational purposes, a SFOC is not required and there are no specific regulatory requirements, but the UAV must be flown “safely and legally”. Transport Canada has published a list of guidelines for flying safely, which include flying during daylight and in good weather only, keeping the UAV in the operator’s line of sight, not flying within 9 km of an airport, higher than 90 m above the ground, or within 150 m of people, animals, buildings, or vehicles. The operator must also comply with all other Canadian laws, including the Criminal Code and privacy law.

If the UAV is heavier than 35 kg, the operator must apply for a SFOC, regardless of the type of operation. If it weighs 35 kg or less and is being used for a non-recreational purpose, the applicable requirements depend on the weight. If it weighs between 25 and 35 kg, a SFOC must be obtained. If it weighs 25 kg or less, the operator must comply with the applicable Transport Canada exemption, or else an SFOC must be obtained.


There are two weight-based categories of exemption for non-recreational UAVs: one applicable to those 2 kg and under, and the other to those between 2.1 kg and 25 kg.  Both categories require that the operator obtain at least $100,000 in liability insurance, and that the UAV be flown in direct line of sight and during daylight only.  The UAV must also be flown no higher than 300 feet above ground level and at least 5 nautical miles away from any aerodrome or “built-up area”. There are also some differences, including with respect to the minimum distance from persons, animals, or structures, as well as with respect to pilot training – operators in the higher weight category must have successfully completed a ground school program. Persons wishing to take advantage of these exemptions should carefully review all applicable requirements.

Proposed Amendments

The present exemptions remain in force until the earlier of December 21, 2016, or the date on which they are cancelled by the Minister of Transport.

The Notice of Proposed Amendment discloses the intention of Transport Canada to move toward a different approach for regulating smaller UAVs – one that is more rigorous and based on the risk level posed by the operation rather than whether it is recreational or non-recreational (with a potential exception for model aircraft flown within a recognized aeromodelling organization). The new regulations will apply to all UAVs with a maximum takeoff weight of 25 kg or less, while larger UAVs will continue to require an SFOC.

Transport Canada has proposed two primary categories for UAVs weighing 25 kg or less: 1) “complex operations with small UAVs” – operations in and around urban or built-up areas or close to aerodromes; and 2) “limited operations with small UAVs” – operations limited to remote areas. It has also proposed a third potential category, “operations with very small UAVs”, which would be based on weight or an alternative approach such as kinetic energy.

Other than the ability of UAVs in the “complex operations” category to operate in closer proximity to built-up areas and aerodromes, a primary difference between the requirements for the “complex operations” and “limited operations” categories is pilot training. For all operations, Transport Canada has proposed that UAV pilots be considered a “pilot” as defined by the Aeronautics Act and the CARs. However, operators in “complex operations” would be required to obtain a “pilot permit”. Suggested requirements for a pilot permit include a minimum age of 14 (with adult supervision) or 16 (without adult supervision), a category 4 medical certificate, successful completion of a course of instruction in specific aviation knowledge areas and a written examination, practical training on the specific category of UAV, and demonstrated competency in the performance of normal and emergency procedures.

In contrast, a pilot operating a UAV in either the “limited operations” or “very small UAVs” category would not be required to obtain a pilot permit or medical certificate, and there would be no minimum age requirement provided there is adult supervision. However, the operator would be required to demonstrate aeronautical knowledge in specific subject areas, such as airspace classification and structure.

The other principal difference between the three proposed categories is with respect to marking, registration, and identification. Transport Canada has proposed that UAVs in both the “limited” and “complex” operations categories be required to be marked and registered.  They would be required to have a unique series of four-letter registration marks, and to be registered in accordance with the requirements for aircraft registration in the CARs. These include that the registrant be at least 16 years of age and a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, and, if the operator is a corporation, it must meet certain requirements of Canadian ownership and/or incorporation.

Operators of very small UAVs would not be required to register their aircraft, but would be required to have a permanent marking for identification, including the name of the pilot and his or her contact information, on the UAV.

Consultation on the Notice of Proposed Amendment closed in August 2015. Transport Canada has reported that it received approximately 100 submissions, including from businesses that offer services related to UAVs, private citizens, provincial and federal governments, academic institutions, and even its own employees. The comments in these submissions are presently being analyzed, and Transport Canada intends to publish draft regulations in 2016. At that time, there will be an opportunity to provide additional comments before the regulations become final.

<< Back to Aviation Law