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11 Feb 2017

Canadian Drone Rules, the SFOC, and More

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Several times a day I have conversations with people that are wondering if what they’re doing is legal or downright confused about how to make sure what they are doing or want to do is completely above board. From these conversations, I have found that regulations in Canada are just too unclear. This article is to better explain what is legal and what is not, as well as what you need to do to fly drones (UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)) legally in Canada.

We aren’t going to get too deep into some of the specifics around weight classifications, types of SFOCs (Special Flight Operations Certificates) etc., but there is enough here to get started. To dig really deep, join us for a UAV Ground School near you.

Are you commercial or recreational?

Let’s start with the first key definition in Canadian UAV regulation.  Are you a commercial user? While most people are under the impression that being a commercial user simply means that you’re collecting money, this simply is not true.  This misunderstanding is going to start getting people in hot water.

Commercial UAV operations are operations being performed for any reason other than pleasure now and in the future. If you fly as a volunteer, that is still commercial. If you fly for someone else that is making money and you don’t charge, that is also commercial. If you make a video and monetize it on YouTube, that is commercial. If you take a photo of your house and years down the road your realtor uses the photo to sell your house, that is commercial. If you fly for any reason other than your own enjoyment of the aircraft and of flying experience, that is commercial.

Now that we’ve decided whether you’re recreational or commercial we need to separate into two different groups so that we can look at two totally different sets of regulations. The recreational rules are currently more restrictive than commercial rules.  If you are a recreational user, please see my recreational regulations article being published soon. If you have determined from the definition above that you are operating a commercial operation, please read on.

Are you exempt?

The next misleading area is exemptions. If you are a commercial operator and meet very stringent and specific criteria, you can be exempt from the more stringent and restrictive rules that befall most commercial operations. That said, to find a place and situation where UAV exemptions are valid is very difficult. To determine whether you are flying in an area that is valid for exemptions, please check out my exemptions article.

You need an SFOC (Special Flight Operations Certificate)

Alright, if you jumped over to that article and you see that you are not exempt from regulations (likely) you need to worry about something called the SFOC. The SFOC, also known as the special operations flight certificate, is going to be the subject of the rest of this article.

A special flight operations certificate is a certificate that certifies your operation.  Is not a certificate the certifies you as a pilot. As of now there is no pilot permit, no pilots license, no pilot certification that is recognized by a Transport Canada. Future regulation is a topic for another article.  There are, however, some major changes coming in the next few months and the coming year.

The SFOC is a certificate issued by Transport Canada that certifies you to operate in a specific place at a specific time for a specific type of operation.It is good for that time, location, and operation only. Don’t worry, there is good news if you read on.

What you need to get the SFOC

To get a special flight operations certificate or SFOC, the process is:

  1. Obtain UAV specific insurance
  2. Meet Transport Canada’s knowledge requirements
  3. Fill out the special flight operations certificate application.

Let’s briefly touch on each of these three items.

Insurance

UAV insurance has a very specific product. Most commercial liability insurance does not cover any type of aircraft, let alone an unmanned aircraft. From what I’ve heard, a lot of insurance policies will specifically exclude unmanned aircraft.

Obtaining UAV specific insurance is pretty simple and we have partners that do an excellent job at providing this. Transport Canada’s UAV specific minimum is $100,000, though most providers go with at least $1,000,000 in insurance. Your and clients may require that you have five million or even $10,000,000 in liability before they will work with you. We have a little bit of information on the insurance providers right here.

Knowledge Requirements

Meeting transport Canada’s minimum knowledge requirements is fairly simple.  You really have two options:

  1. First, you can display and demonstrate that you have sufficient knowledge in UAV law, general aviation, meteorology, and other items covered in Transport Canada’s TP 15263 – Knowledge Requirements for Pilots of Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems (UAV) 25 kg or Less, Operating within Visual Line of Sight
  2. You can also attend a UAV specific ground school like the Aerobotika UAS Ground School. A good ground school will give you direct access to an expert in class that you can talk to about your specific plans and can tailor the content and discussion to your needs. With the intention of helping you become a safe and proficient UAV operator they will provide a lot more than just what’s required by a transport Canada.
The SFOC Application

Now we get into the part about the application itself. This is not a single simple easy form; you don’t just download and fill it out with your basic information. Although there is now a form that you can download and you can fill out some fields, there are four fields in this form that take at least 10 pages of content fill.

Filling out an SFOC application is a very daunting task. This document is not like filling and any other form, is more like a writing an essay about what you plan on doing. You need to write about what the risks of your operation are, how you plan on mitigating those risks, how you evaluate your operation, what your emergency procedures are, and any other important details about you, your aircraft, and your operation.

After you have filled out the application you will need to submit it to Transport Canada. Transport Canada’s processing time ranges from 20 days to six months depending on the region that you are working with.

Once the application is reviewed, Transport Canada inspectors will be in touch to review the application with you and ask for any changes or additions to the application that are required. Remember that Transport Canada’s only concern is the safety of air traffic and the public.

You have your first SFOC!

After review and sometimes a lot of negotiation, you will be granted your SFOC. Your certificate will come with a set of rules and restrictions that you need to follow. Aerobotika’s SFOCs have almost 90 restrictions on them. These restrictions are going to be different for everyone and will be based on what you put in your application around your plans, risks, and the mitigation tactics you have outlined.

A few standard restrictions include:

  • flying at least 100 lateral feet from people, buildings, and active roadways
  • flying no higher than 400 feet above the ground
  • not flying within 8 hours of consuming alcohol
  • keeping your aircraft in view at all times (VLOS / Visual Line of Sight)
  • following regulations

And many, many more.

Blanket / Standing SFOC

Remember, this application and the certificate are only good for one mission / operation.  That’s one day or one short time period, one location and one purpose. So here we find the practicality issue.

Imagine you are a real estate agent.  You have a property that you are selling, and you want to market it with an amazing aerial photo. You fill out this application and it takes to about 40 hours.  Then you submit the application which will take another four weeks at the very least. By the time you get your machine in the air to take a photo the house that you had listed sold almost a month ago!

There is good news.  You don’t have to know when you’re going to fly four to 24 weeks in advance every time. After a number of safe operations transport Canada gets to know you, knows that you are safe operator and recognizes that you know what you’re doing. When they are comfortable with you and you have a good record, they will invite you to apply for what is called a standing SFOC commonly known as a blanket SFOC. This certificate is good for an entire region for an entire year. This means that you can fly anywhere anytime for in the transport Canada region that the certificate was issued in.

We can get into more details about how this application differs from the regular single SFOC application in the future, or you can just give us a call to help you out.

In Closing

That’s all we are going to cover for now. We are going to get a lot deeper into this in future regulations and we cover it in depth in our UAS Ground School and Learn Before You Fly courses.

The Canadian regulations can be confusing, they can be daunting, and they can make you wan to pull your hair out. Always remember: this is why Aerobotika exists. This is all we do. We can take this massive scary monster mess of confusing rules and create a turnkey solution for you to get flying as soon as possible with as little worry and as little effort as possible. If you want to learn more or if you want to start flying legally in Canada, you can attend the Aerobotika UAV Ground School or reach out to us at any time.