Four ways to legally fly your UAV in Canada

May 25, 2016 12:01:02 PM

The most important thing is defining what you’re going to be using your UAV for.

If you’re using it for anything recreational, you can go ahead and fly it without a permit.

“The distinction isn’t commercial vs. non-commercial – the distinction is recreational vs non-recreational,” explains Eric Edwards, past chair of Unmanned Systems Canada, and industry representative of many of Transport Canada’s regulatory initiatives.

What this means is that if you’re using it for anything other than a hobby – that includes education, business and anything else that is for “hire or reward” – it puts you in a different category, and you will probably need to get a government license to operate.

That license is called a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), and it is administered by Transport Canada (TC).



An SFOC is the way Transport Canada deals with the fact that there are currently no formal detailed regulations around flying UAVs.

The SFOC creates a set of operating rules for the drone user. When you apply, you state where and what you will fly, how you’ll do maintenance on your equipment, who’s going to fly it and how well trained they are.

“You basically create an environment around it,” says Edwards. Transport Canada will then add some restrictions to whatever self-designed restrictions you’ve come up with.

For a new drone user, this environment may be tightly restricted. “You might only be flying in a remote area, your flight certificate might only be valid for a month, there may be many different constraints put on it,” explains Edwards.

This could be different if you are an actual aviation company applying for such a permit.

If you already have a fleet of aircraft that you operate, this shows that you already understand aviation, airspace, air regulations, and you have processes in place. Transport Canada will take all of that into account when considering your SFOC application.

But the important thing to note is that you will gradually begin to prove yourself to TC. “Basically the idea is that at some level you want to put your foot in the door and start operating. You build experience, you build a reputation, you reapply and you can widen the envelope as you go,” says Edwards.



Edwards said that to some, getting that certification might seem like a daunting process – but it doesn’t have to be.

First of all, if what you’re using your drone for is simple, the application can be simple as well.

Secondly, there are agencies out there that can help you get certified. “There’s an entire knowledge syllabus out there from Transport Canada, and if you can find a course that honestly teaches it and doesn’t take short cuts, and you tell Transport Canada that your pilots have been trained according to this standard, that’s a huge benefit,” he says.

Those programs are pretty common in Canada, and you can even take some of them online. It also helps if you have someone with a pilot’s license operating your drone.

The more training you have, the more that will show in your application, particularly in the operations portion, which is the most complicated. “That has more to do with airspace and air traffic control – that kind of thing. You can help yourself a lot by understanding those things, and that’s what you’ll get out of a course,” explains Edwards. “You’ll understand what airspace is all about and the different categories of airspace – where you should be and where you shouldn’t be.

Then when you do the SFOC application after you’ve done the course, it’s guaranteed you’re going to submit a better application. They’re going to look at the way you wrote it, and the language you used, the things that you clearly understand and don’t understand. Again, that helps you. It’s a very subjective process right now.”



So far we’ve seen two ways to legally fly your drone: as a hobbyist, or with an SFOC. But there are two other ways, as well – though they might not be very useful. One applies to UAVs that weigh up to 2 kg, and the other applies to UAVs from 2 to 25 kg.  If you can meet a list of conditions for each category, then you are exempt from requiring an SFOC.

However, those exemptions are so onerous that there are very few people that can actually use them. For example, in order to fly, the pilot has to be nine km from an airport or any built up area.

“If you fire up Google Earth and you put a nine-km circle around every airport, or aerodrome, or float plane base or helicopter pad in Canada; and you put a nine-km circle around any built up area – which is a town, village or even large cluster of buildings – then you discover that you can’t fly anywhere in southern Ontario at all, you can’t fly in much of Alberta, you can’t fly in parts of Saskatchewan,” says Edwards. “The people who can use these things are either in the far north or rural farmers.”



The current SFOC system for regulating drone use won’t last forever.

Right now Canada is in the process of developing actual regulations that will make piloting a drone look a lot like regular aviation, expected to come down in 2017. “You’ll have a pilot permit, there will be systems out there that meet a certain standard, and there will be certain boundaries on operations,” explains Edwards. “If you meet all those requirements, [you’ll be able to fly a drone] the same way that I can just go down to an airport and get in an airplane and fly.”

Of course, Edwards is also a licensed pilot.

Special thanks to Eric Edwards and Unmanned Systems Canada.  For more information, go to, and consider attending the Canadian national conference in November in Edmonton.

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