Do your homework before taking flight

Thinking of using a drone on your farm? If you are, make sure you know the rules and regulations before you take flight.

The first step is to apply for a Special Flight Operations Certificate.

“Anyone using a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) for work or research purposes, including for agriculture, must hold a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada,” says Natasha Gauthier, senior media relations adviser with Transport Canada.

“Every SFOC application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, according to such criteria as the proposed use and the experience and safety record of the applicant.… Each SFOC contains specific terms on what the operator is and is not allowed to do. This can include restrictions and requirements such as maximum allowed altitude, mandatory communications with air traffic control and minimum required distances from aerodromes, people and buildings.”

The use of drones for non-recreational purposes has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years with the number of SFOCs issued by Transport Canada increasing to 1,672 in 2014 from 945 in 2013 and 345 in 2012.

They were once rarely seen in farming country, but their popularity in agriculture has grown quickly.

Matthew Johnson, president of M3 Aerial Productions Inc. in Winnipeg, says the vast majority of new drone users who he trains are involved in agriculture. Many of them are farmers.

“About 90 percent of our clientele is from the ag industry,” Johnson said.

“The people that are coming to our course are the ones that know there are regulations in place. They may not know the ins and outs of all the regulations, but they do know that as of Dec. 21, 2016, anybody operating commercially has to have training.”

Rapid growth in commercial drone use has prompted Transport Canada to revisit the regulations governing their use.

Before 2017, pilots could obtain an SFOC exemption if the drone they were using weighed two kilograms or less. However, the weight limit for exemptions was reduced Jan. 1 to one kg.

Transport Canada is also proposing additional changes to the Canadian Aviation Regulations, including new flight rules, aircraft marking and registration requirements, knowledge testing, minimum age limits and pilot permits for certain drone operators.

The proposed amendments focus on smaller drones — recreational and non-recreational — that weigh 25 kg or less and are operated within visual line of sight.

Canadians will have the opportunity to comment on the proposed regulations once they are published in the Canada Gazette, Part I, this spring.

It is widely expected that the new regulations, if passed, will take effect in 2018.

Johnson said federal regulations that govern drone use are aimed at addressing public concerns about safety and ensuring that users are flying their machines responsibly.

In spite of Canada’s existing regulatory framework, there are still too many cases of irresponsible drone use by people who don’t recognize the potential risks.

“In general, having a lot of drones flying around overhead is … not a safe thing … especially when the number of drones in increasing (so quickly),” Johnson said.

M3 provides flight school training for new drone users.

Completion of a training program that conforms to federal guidelines for safe drone use is a pre-requisite to acquiring a SFOC.

In addition to training and SFOC certification, every commercial user must carry liability insurance.

Determining whether a drone is being used for recreational or commercial purposes is not always a black and white issue, Johnson added.

For example, taking aerial pictures of your farm may not be a commercial use, but taking pictures of your crops and making management decisions based on those pictures is a commercial application.

“There’s a fine line between recreational use and commercial use,” he said. “However, it can be fairly easily distinguished that if you’re using a drone to gain benefit … it’s considered commercial.”

Flying drones on a regular basis on the farm could also be an indication of commercial use.

Markus Weber, president of LandView Drones in Edmonton, said agricultural users should be aware that regulations for small drones have changed.

Ottawa’s decision to reduce the maximum weight for SFOC-exempt drones to one kg from two means more users will be required to complete a training program and acquire a SFOC.

“The regulations (for exempt drones) actually got a bit looser,” Weber said.

“(Pilots of exempt drones that weigh one kg or less) still can’t fly over buildings, but you can at least fly close to built-up areas, as long as you’re away from an airport.”

However, farmers who are assessing crop conditions using multi-spectral or near infrared light probably shouldn’t be flying without an SFOC in most cases anyway.

“The bottom line for most farmers is that they will have some land that’s close to a built-up area and if they want to do any multi-spectral or near infrared light at all, then they’re probably above two kg anyway.”

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