Canada’s Regulations for Foreign Commercial UAV Operators

Canada’s relatively favorable framework for commercial UAV operations is attracting interest among foreign operators who are frustrated with restrictions in their home jurisdictions. The following provides a breakdown of Canadian regulations affecting foreign commercial operators…

Are foreign operators eligible to operate in Canada?

Foreign operators may conduct commercial operations in Canada if they are granted a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada. To be considered a candidate for an SFOC to conduct a commercial operation, a foreign operator must demonstrate legal eligibility to operate in the operator’s home jurisdiction. For example, a US operator would require a Certificate of Waiver and Authorization (COA) or a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) to be eligible to apply for an SFOC to conduct a commercial operation in Canada.

What options are available for foreign operators who aren’t legally eligible to operate in their home jurisdictions?

First, foreign operators who have no legal basis for operating in their home jurisdictions are permitted to conduct research and development operations in Canada under an SFOC. Such activities must be conducted at designated UAV test sites such as the CCUVS site recently approved in Southern Alberta. The CCUVS site operates under restricted airspace that spans 700 square nautical miles running up to 18,000 feet above sea level. Because the airspace is restricted, it is possible to complete more risky operations such as those conducted beyond visual line of sight.

Second, foreign operators who have no legal basis to operate in their home jurisdictions can set up a Canadian subsidiary through which they may conduct commercial operations. By establishing a Canadian corporate entity, operators can avoid the foreign eligibility requirements and apply through the normal SFOC process open to Canadian operators. For example, if a US corporation sets up a Canadian subsidiary, the Canadian entity can apply for an SFOC without having a COA or a SAC. Additionally, the Canadian entity would be eligible for the two new exemptions from the SFOC process (assuming the other exemption criteria are met).

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Commercial Drone Regulations – Canada vs. US

When Canadians attempt to characterize aspects of Canadian culture, it’s not uncommon to draw comparisons with the US. I recently noticed that as I respond to questions about the Canadian regulations surrounding commercial drones, I often begin by stating that our regulatory framework is quite distinct from that of the US – here’s why…

In Canada, commercial operators can apply to obtain Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOCs) from Transport Canada. It takes Transport Canada about 20 days to assess applications, and last year the agency issued 945 SFOCs to applicants representing a variety of industries including aerial videography, agriculture and oil and gas.

Generally, the Canadian regulations do not establish bright line rules governing drone operations – for instance they do not specify whether you need a pilot’s license to complete a commercial drone flight, or whether it is permitted to fly beyond the visual line of sight. Rather, Transport Canada assesses applications using a case-by-case approach. In order to obtain approval, applicants must show that they can mitigate operational risks to an acceptable level.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been working to develop drone regulations since the enactment of the FAA Modernization Act of 2012. Until the framework is in place, those looking to fly for commercial purposes can only proceed by exemption. Most companies have been denied exemptions, the notable exceptions being a couple of oil companies that received approval to operate drones in remote areas of Alaska.

Last Thursday, the FAA extended regulatory exemptions to six Hollywood companies looking to film using drones. Although the Hollywood exemptions represent a move in a positive direction, the restrictions placed on the companies are quite onerous, for instance the operations must take place in a controlled closed-set environment and may only be completed below 400 feet and within the visual line of sight.

By comparison, commercial drone operations are the norm in Canada and will continue to be an exception in the US until the new rules are in place.

Amazon Drones: The gap between vision and regulation

On Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the company’s plans to offer drone deliveries within 30 minutes, igniting discussion filled with excitement and questions. On the forefront, is the issue of when we can expect to see Amazon’s drones on the horizon.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently devising rules for integration of drones into the domestic airspace, with a view to enabling commercial use by 2015. Although the FAA rules will certainly open up the airspace to commercial drones, it has yet to be determined whether the framework will enable applications like Amazon’s.

In Canada, commercial drones are already in use, however each operation must be approved by Transport Canada through the issuing of a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). In order to be approved, the applicant must complete a risk assessment and outline steps that will be taken to mitigate the risks to an acceptable level. Normally, it takes at least 20 days to obtain a SFOC, and in many cases (especially for first-time applicants) the process is longer. The Canadian regulations are also under review, as the UAS Program Design Working Group is set to make recommendations for amending aviation regulations by 2017.

Regulators on both sides of the border will have a difficult task ahead – balancing innovation and safety. Hopefully, the new regulations that are set to come out in Canada and the US will not stifle commercial applications like Amazon’s.