What Does the Law in Canada Say about Drone Photography?

What Does the Law in Canada Say about Drone Photography?
"There are heavy restrictions placed on business people that are trying to do it properly, whereas it actually should be the other way. They are the ones that are actually driving the market, driving the technology, and making it accessible to everyday people."

So, you want to fly a drone? From what we’ve seen in this series on drone photography in real estate, drones will play a huge role in shaping our future, and not just when it comes to photography – these high-tech flying devices can help you with everything from surveying crops to photographing building sites to tracking down bad guys. And, from what we’ve heard from the people who operate drones, they’re also a whole lot of fun to fly.

A Fly
A Fly by Lima Pix

The good news for any aspiring drone pilots living in Toronto (or anywhere else in Canada for that matter) is that the requirements for becoming a drone pilot are extremely simple. Step one: Get a drone. Step two: Start flying. That’s it. As long as you’re not planning on operating your drone for business purposes, that’s all you have to do.

Jason Toth puts it, the drone industry in its “wild west” era right now; the opportunities are virtually endless, and, at least for right now, the restrictions on what you can and can’t do with a drone are minimal.

The Dangers of Flight

When Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, first came on the market, many of us were swept up in the excitement over all that they can do. Over the past few years, however, the potential dangers these UAVs pose to our society have become abundantly clear.

Drone Window
Drone Window

In 2014, there were reports of near-misses between drones and airplanes in both Canada and the UK. In both cases, the airplane pilot stated that a collision could have caused a crash, and in both cases, the operator of the drone could not be found. More recently, a quad-copter “mistletoe drone” at a TGI Friday’s in New York, which was meant to help spread the holiday spirit by flying mistletoe over couples’ heads, spun out of control and crashed into a woman’s face, resulting in minor injuries to the woman’s nose.

For drone photographer Grant Robinson, its incidents like these that are acting as wake-up calls to alert our society to the potential dangers of drones.

“At some point the government is going to have to restrict drone use because somebody will get hurt,” he says.

Robinson is a freelance photographer based in Kelowna, B.C. who has worked as a drone camera operator on many shoots in both Canada and the UK.

“I’ve not heard yet of anybody being killed by a drone, but there just has to be one [death],” he says, drawing a comparison between drones in our society and the early days of aircraft flight. “100 years ago, how many people had died in plane crashes?” he asks. By the time the next generation comes of age, Robinson predicts, drone deaths may become just as common as deaths caused by airplanes or even death caused by car crashes.

Drone Regulations: Flying for Pleasure

In Canada, drone regulations are essentially broken down into two categories: regulations for those who operate a drone for business purposes, and regulations for those who operate a drone for recreational purposes.

Drone Photo Valley
Drone Photo Valley

According to Transport Canada, the government agency that regulates air traffic, as long as your drone is under 35 kilograms and you aren’t using it for commercial purposes, you don’t need any special certification to become a drone pilot. You are, however, expected to follow several common-sense “do’s and don’ts” of drone operation. These include things like flying only in good weather, staying nine kilometres away from airports, limiting your flights to no more than 90 metres off the ground, and staying at least 150 metres away from people, animals, buildings, and vehicles.

According to reports by the CBC, Transport Canada is actively pushing an education campaign to encourage people to fly their recreational drones safely. This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone who flies a drone is clear about what the rules are.

“We’re in this real grey area where the government is saying ‘please register your flights, please don’t fly around people, it’s kind of illegal if you do, but it’s really not illegal yet,'” says Robinson.

Dany Thivierge of CanadaDrones.com has also found that the rules are not exactly set in stone for the people he sells drones to.

“Not flying over a road or highway is common sense, and not flying close to an airport or over a crowd is also a no brainer. But with the increased availability of drones and simplicity to operate them we get more people using these and it’s easy to get over-confident and forget the basic rules.”

If you’re planning on flying a drone recreationally, you can familiarize yourself with Transport Canada’s guidelines, which are located online here.

Drone Regulations: Flying for Business

If, on the other hand, you’re planning on using a drone for business purposes (such as photographing a property for sale), you’ll have to follow a much stricter procedure, specifically, applying for a Special Flight Operations Certificate. (The same is the case for anyone operating a drone that weighs 35 kilograms or more, regardless of whether they’re using it for commercial purposes or not.)

This is the process that Shawn Talbot and Jan Vozenilek had to go through with their company, Rubicon Aerial Cinema.

“In the beginning, for basically your first year, you’re having to apply for every one of your flights, and the application approval can take up to two weeks,” says Talbot. “That’s extremely difficult when you’re first starting out. There’s a lot of paperwork involved.”

Now that Rubicon have completed this process, there are no restrictions as to when or where they can fly their UAVs (as long as they follow the basic “dos and don’ts” of drone operation, of course) although they still have to notify Transport Canada of every flight they make.

For Robinson, however, the way that drones are regulated in Canada is actually the opposite of what it should be:

“There are heavy restrictions placed on business people that are trying to do it properly, whereas it actually should be the other way. They are the ones that are actually driving the market, driving the technology, and making it accessible to everyday people.”

How Much are We Willing to Pay?

With the way the technology is going, it seems like drones will be a normal part of our everyday lives in the not so distant future. In the UK alone, two to three thousand drones are sold every month, and the French government also reported a 350 percent increase in drone sales in 2013.

drone farming
Drone by Lima Pix

And in addition to becoming more accessible, drones are also getting a lot smaller: The BBC recently documented a flight by the world’s smallest camera-equipped drone, which weighs only four grams and fits in the palm of your hand. This means that drones could soon become as ubiquitous as smartphones.

A world full of pocket-sized drones could have plenty of benefits (using a drone to fetch your coffee from the kitchen while you’re sitting in the living room, perhaps?) but it also means that those who are set on using drones for nefarious activities will have a much easier time, as these tiny devices could be almost impossible to track.

The end result of all this technology, as with any other technology, really comes down to human input. Drones have just as much power to do good in our society as they have to do bad. The question is: how much of a risk are we as a society willing to accept in exchange for all of the wonderful benefits that drones may offer?


6 Replies to “What Does the Law in Canada Say about Drone Photography?”

  1. Richard,
    Thanks for the nice article on drone videos. Here in Costa Rica, there are no restrictions as of yet and drone videos are really becoming popular. check out my latest video http://youtu.be/7fs-kQa-ZuI. This is something a camera could never accomplish and really shows the natural beauty of a development.

  2. Another point to consider, in addition to the ones that you already listed, is point #26 in the exemptions:

    “The pilot operating under this exemption shall only operate a UAV at least five (5) nautical miles from a built up area.”

    That eliminates everywhere but the most remote locations for someone that is attempting to fly without a SFOC.

  3. Timely article. For those unsure how to identify the airports, aerodromes and heliports in their intended area of operation, refer to the Canadian Flight Supplement (CFS). It’s available from Nav Canada in either electronic or print version. Also, please remember that the 9 km restriction also applies to hospital heliports.

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