New Drone Pilots – The Ultimate Canadian Guide

New Drone, Who Dis?

If you’ve recently purchased your first drone or received one as a gift, this article is for you.  This guide will break down for new drone pilots the differences between Micro, Basic, and Advanced category drone operations, and what steps you need to take to become a certified pilot.

 

Drone Operations Categories – Which one applies to me?

First, let’s determine what category of drone operation you want to fly under.  Transport Canada (and most countries at this point) break down drone laws initially by weight.  If you’ve got a drone that weighs 249 grams (0.54 lbs) or less, including batteries and any accessories required for flight, you’re in the micro-drone category.

If your new drone weighs 250 grams or more (up to 25 kilograms, or 55 lbs) your drone falls in the small drone category.  Transport Canada officially calls this the Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) category, but for simplicity, we refer to this class as “small drones” or just drones.

Just a quick note as it’s beyond the scope of this article, but if you wanted to operate a drone that weighs 25 kilograms or more, you will need to apply for a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) in conjunction with an Advanced Pilot Certificate.

Micro-Drone Operations

The “This Feels so wrong it must be illegal” category.

Micro-drone operations fall under the *ahem* radar of normal small drone laws (Canadian Aviation Regulations Part IX) with an exemption that precludes them from going any deeper than the preliminary rules published in CARS 900.  (There are subparts published in 901 for 250g+ operations, 902 (BVLOS when???) and 903 for SFOCs)

Here’s the entire book of rules that apply to Micro-Drones as of publishing this article:

1 – Don’t be an idiot.

Ok, so that’s paraphrased, but wouldn’t life be simple if that were the case?  The actual CARs referenced is 900.06 – Reckless or Negligent Operation – which is quoted as to say:

“No person shall operate a remotely piloted aircraft system in such a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger aviation safety or the safety of any person.”

Further, micro-drones are considered navigable aircraft, so flight into Class F Restricted (CYR on the Map) airspace is also forbidden without permission from the airspace operator.  Typically, this airspace exists surrounding forest fires, natural disasters, airshows, prisons, and military facilities.  You can find a directory of all airspace in Canada in the TP1820E – Designated Airspace Handbook (DAH).  Here’s an example of Class F Airspace:  

 

Map depicting class F Restricted airspace over Mission Institution.

Mission (CYR140) is class F – Restricted airspace, surrounded by Class G airspace, which means in order to fly within the boundaries of that location, with either a Micro, Basic, or Advanced certificate, you would need to contact the Warden of the prison, not NavCanada to obtain permission to fly.

The DAH has further details regarding the mission airspace, and all other airspaces in Canada, and is published by Nav Canada either when a new permanent change is required, or on a regular schedule.  Always ensure you have the latest version, otherwise, you might be flying in unknown airspace!

Screenshot of CYR140 Mission Institution airspace information.
The designated airspace handbook cover page.

The Aeronautical Information Manual:

Transport Canada issues a document, the TP14371E – Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual (TC-AIM) twice a year that summarizes and expands upon the black-and-white language of the Canadian Aviation Regulations and helps to provide a more robust explanation of the rules.  There is a whole chapter dedicated to drones, and it’s a worthwhile read for any pilot, new, or experienced.  Here’s what is in the AIM for rules of thumb to better understand how CARS 900.06 should apply to micro-drone pilots.

As a rule of thumb:
(a) Maintain the micro RPA in direct line of sight.
(b) Avoid flying your micro RPA above 400 ft above ground
level (AGL).
(c) Keep a safe lateral distance between your micro RPA and
other people.
(d) Stay far away from aerodromes, water aerodromes, and
heliports.
(e) Avoid flying near critical infrastructure.
(f) Stay clear of aircraft at all times.
(g) Conduct a pre-flight inspection of your micro RPA.
(h) Keep the micro RPA close enough to maintain the connection with the remote controller.
(i) Follow the manufacturer’s operational guidelines.
(j) Avoid special aviation or advertised events.

 

Cover page of the TC AIM RPA chapter.
The basics for micro-drone operators outlined in a handy info card.
Micro Drone Operations

From the graphic above, Orange shaded areas represent blocks of airspace where you can operate a micro-drone, but you should exercise extreme caution.

Hazards in those areas include:

  • Uncontrolled aircraft operating in class G airspace from 500′ and up, or as low as the surface in some areas.  There is no lower legal altitude limit for airplanes and helicopters when training, in remote areas, or conducting a landing or take-off, and a drone must always give way to manned aircraft.
  • Operations in Class F CYR and CYD airspace are prohibited to drones of all sizes.  You will find this airspace around prisons, wildfires, military training areas, or other areas on short notice as prescribed by NOTAM.  Class F CYA airspace you should exercise caution as there will likely be low-flying aircraft in the area.
  • You can fly a micro-drone as close to people as is safe, including over the top of them, as long as you respect CARS 900.06.  A parachute is not required for sub-250g drones, but best to ensure your micro-drone does not pose the risk of laceration or critical injury on impact.
  • You can fly a micro-drone within 3NM of Airports and 1NM of certified heliports, but you should review CARS 901.73 and use it as guidelines in addition to CARS 900.06.
  • Flying in controlled airspace above 400′ is really not recommended, as you’re likely to put your drone in the path of airplanes and helicopters transitioning to and from airports.  Spotting a drone while flying is nearly impossible, and despite its diminutive size, a sub-250g drone could still do serious damage to a windscreen, incapacitating the pilot.

Free drone tools you should use:

Every drone flight, regardless of size, needs to have a site survey conducted prior to takeoff.  This should also apply to sub-250g operations.  Just because you can fly nearly anywhere, you need to know what hazards are above you, and how you intend to fly safely.

A site survey, at minimum, must consist of reviewing the airspace above you and identifying the nearest aerodromes and sources of manned aircraft activity.  You can use the NRC Site Selection Tool, and set it into “Micro” operations mode, to get a better idea of relevant limitations and nearby restrictions.  At this time, Nav Canada’s NAV Drone does not differentiate between micro- and small-drone operations.

Another great free drone tool we recommend is UAV Forecast, which quickly helps you identify hazardous weather conditions in your area, as well as KP Index readings, which can impede the GPS in your drone.

Learn to fly your micro-drone with confidence:

A drone weighing under 250g does not require the operator to have a pilot certification. However, there is one rule that still applies!

CAR 900.06 Applies to all remotely piloted aircraft, and basically says: “do not fly your aircraft in a manner which could cause a hazard to people in the air or on the ground.”

This course includes everything you need to know when flying your new Mavic Mini or any other sub-250g drone.

Small Drone Operations

Most drone operations in Canada will fall under this category.

The entirety of CARS 901 (Part IX Subpart 1) is dedicated to small drone operations which means, any remotely piloted aircraft system that weighs from 250 grams up to 25 kg.

These operations are broken down into two categories:  Basic Operations, and Advanced Operations.  Basic Operations are intended for low-risk drone flights that are well separated from urban activity and airport operations, and outside of controlled airspace.  In order to fly any 250g+ drone in Canada, the pilot must have at least a Basic Pilot Certificate, in addition to registering the drone with Transport Canada.

Within the small drone weight category, operations are categorized under a risk-based approach, in the sense that the closer you get to risk, the higher the certification and oversight required becomes.  As you get closer to people, airports, heliports, and controlled airspace, you will need to obtain an Advanced Pilot Certificate.

Breakdown between Basic and Advanced Operations

Basic RPAS Operations:

Upon registration of a drone weighing 250 grams or more, and upon completion of the Basic Online exam, a drone pilot in Canada may perform the following flights with a Basic Pilot Certificate:

  • More than 3NM (5.6KM) away from Airports.
  • More than 1NM (2KM) away from Heliports.
  • Outside of Controlled Airspace.
  • More than 100 ft (30 Meters) horizontal distance away from persons not considered essential to the drone operation (bystanders).
  • Drone must be kept within visual line of sight at all times. (This includes FPV, where a spotter must be used.)
  • Drone must not be flown more than 400′ above ground at any time, except within 200′ of a structure, and only 100′ above that structure.
Where you can, and can't fly with a Basic Certificate.

How to obtain your Basic Pilot Certificate:

Create a profile on the Drone Management Portal, and register your drone.

You will need to be a minimum 14 years of age to qualify for the Basic Pilot Certificate.

Study for the Basic Online Exam with our online, on-demand training course and sample test questions.  Take the online test, and pass with a score of 65% or better.

Develop your own checklists and standard operating procedures for site surveys, pre-flight, flight, and emergencies as required by CARS, with help from our included standard operating procedures guide.

Every 24 months, ensure you maintain your pilot certificate by completing an approved recency exercise.

Advanced RPAS Operations:

In order to qualify for Advanced Drone operations in Canada, there are several requirements on both the pilot and the drone (RPAS) to be used for the advanced flight.

Advanced Pilot Requirements:

To conduct advanced operations, the pilot in command must complete the Advanced Online Exam with a passing score of 80% or better and subsequently complete a TP15395 Flight Review, which is an in-person knowledge and proficiency exercise.

The flight review is required before an Advanced Pilot Certificate can be issued.  The flight review typically takes about 90 minutes and involves a document and procedure review, a verbal knowledge confirmation, and finally a flight skill demonstration.

Advanced Drone Requirements:

Transport Canada considers 3 drone operations (within the scope of 250g-25kg flights) to be routine Advanced Operations:

  1. Flights Near People (Less than 30M horizontal distance to bystanders, but not closer than 5M)
  2. Flights Over People (Less than 5M horizontal distance to bystanders, at any approved altitude)
  3. Flight in Controlled Airspace (Class A, B, C, D, E)

In order to qualify for flights in any of the three above scenarios, the drone must be accompanied by a Manufacturer’s Safety Assurance Declaration specific to the category of flight that the drone has been proven to be safely operated.  There are specific criteria that the drone must demonstrate capabilities in, in order to be accurately declared considered safe to fly.

For example, to fly in Over People operations, most multi-rotor quadcopters would require some sort of ballistic recovery device, such as a parachute, in order to arrest the rate of descent in the event of a systems failure and prevent injury to persons below the drone.  This declaration often includes a minimum operating altitude to allow for the parachute to deploy safely.

You can’t just fly anywhere:

Holders of an Advanced Pilot Certificate and approved drone aren’t automatically approved to conduct Advanced operations wherever they see fit.  In order to fly in controlled airspace, approval from the Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), Nav Canada for the most part, is required prior to take-off.  This usually involved NavDrone, which is an app submitting for time-limited, region-specific flight authorization requests.

Where you can, and cant without permission, fly with an Advanced Certificate.

Advanced RPAS Operations:

Upon registration of a drone weighing 250 grams or more, and upon completion of the Advanced Online exam and in-person flight review, a drone pilot in Canada may perform the following flights with an Advanced Pilot Certificate:

  • Flights near and over Airports with coordination with the operator.
  • Flights near and over Heliports with coordination with the operator. 
  • Flights in controlled airspace with approval from the Air Navigation Service Provider
  • Flights near and over people, with appropriate manufacturer’s safety assurance declaration.
  • Drone must be kept within visual line of sight at all times. (This includes FPV, where a spotter must be used.)
  • Drone must not be flown more than 400′ above ground at any time, except within 200′ of a structure, and only 100′ above that structure.

How to obtain your Advanced Pilot Certificate:

If you haven’t already been flying under Basic operations, create a profile on the Drone Management Portal, and register your drone.

 You will need to be a minimum of 16 years of age to qualify for the Advanced Pilot Certificate.

Study for the Advanced Online Exam with our online, on-demand training course and sample test questions, and write the exam with a passing grade of 80% or better.

Develop your own checklists and standard operating procedures for site surveys, pre-flight, flight, and emergencies as required by CARS with help from our included SOP Guide.

Demonstrate your operational procedures, knowledge, and skills with a Transport Canada-approved flight reviewer in person.

Every 24 months, ensure you maintain your pilot certificate by completing an approved recency exercise.

The Special Flight Operations Certificate

 

CARS 901, or IX Subpart 1, covers normal drone operations, or VLOS drone operations within the 250g to 25kg weight category.  The limitations within that category are well defined, as well as the consequences for ignoring the laws.

However, there may be a legal need for you to break the law, so to say, or fly beyond the limits of CARS 901.  Enter CARS 903, or IX Subpart 3, which is a section of drone laws reserved for complex drone operations that require a special flight operations certificate, or SFOC.

SFOCs are issued by Transport Canada in a limited fashion for novel circumstances that justify flights beyond current routine operations.  This may include emergency services, testing, agriculture, and cinematography.

Typically, as of most recent information from Transport Canada, these SFOCs are issued for a 12-month period and take a minimum of 30 business days to process, upon receipt of the complete application package.

As of recent stats, only about 150 or so SFOCs have been granted in the preceding year, so you can certainly understand the level of complexity and novelty required for the certificates to be issued.

SFOCs are typically requested for flights:

  • beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS),
  • flights near military aerodrones,
  • over 400′ in uncontrolled airspace,
  • aerial application of agriculture products,
  • heavy-lift operations over 25kg,
  • flights carrying hazardous payloads,
  • or for flights over and near advertised events or special aviation events.

Foreign pilot SFOCs are also regularly requested, in order to operate a drone that is not domestically owned.  More information about the updated foreign pilot information can be found in our Foreign Pilot SFOC guidance package.

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