Ottawa unleashes the drones

Transport Canada streamlines the regulations and the sky is the limit for UAVs in ag, or 400 feet, whichever comes first

The potential agronomic value of ag drones is getting a boost from the federal government in the form of streamlined regulations that eliminate much of the existing cumbersome bureaucratic paperwork.

Unmanned Systems Canada (USC), a national non-profit association representing public and private innovation in unmanned vehicle systems, applauded the move by Transport Canada. The sky is the limit for advanced drone technology in agriculture as the federal government loosens the reins.

“Detailed paperwork and special permissions will now only be required under specific circumstances, which will allow professional operators to carry out their jobs with less bureaucracy,” said USC chair Mark Aruja.

In a phone interview, Aruja explained that the changes will simplify things for farmers who want to operate their own field inspection drones. He said there are two categories of drone operation: basic and enhanced. Most farmers in Western Canada are not near an airport or controlled airspace, so they require only a basic license.

“It’s really straight forward,” he said.

Related stories in this issue:

“Go online, register your device, write the basic exam online, which is not an onerous task, and there’s a small fee of $10.

“If you’re operating in a more complex environment, near an airport or a town, then you’re in a more advanced category, closer to the professional category. There are still some engineering issues to be resolved, so we don’t quite have the final regulations ready yet, but my gut feeling is that for the vast majority of farmers, this will have no impact on their UAV operations.

“Farmers want to fly a complete section, one mile by one mile, with a single setup. But as for scaling up to fly whole sections at a time, we’re not quite there yet. We’re working on it. Transport Canada started their formal trials this past summer and will continue this summer. We’re hoping to convince the regulator that we can do commercial operations beyond visual line of sight.”

Aruja said that the altitude is the same whether you’re flying a whole section or just a few acres. The strength of the camera is the main factor, he added, whether a farmer is doing crop monitoring or something more complex such as drainage profiling. The challenge is to figure out how to do only one setup that accurately flies a pattern on a whole section.

“To do that without losing control of your drone is the issue. When the drone is a mile away, you cannot see it. You need more sophisticated guidance. We’re doing a number of trials in Alberta. We did some trials in B.C. in December.

“We’re looking at precisely those issues. How can we license a system or a UAV that a farmer can use at a great distance from one base? For example, if something enters your air space over your field, how will you know it and what can you do about it? These are the kinds of issues we’re dealing with.”

Aruja said regulations governing remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) have been awaited by Canada’s growing drone industry, and the next step is to move ahead with beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) regulations. BVLOS flights allow commercial drone operators to carry out a wide array of long-range missions, such as surveying vast forests, mining properties, agricultural lands, power lines and pipelines.

As an example, a farmer who has 10,000 acres spread out over a wide area could use a BVLOS drone in the spring to see which fields have standing water and which fields appear ready for seeding. At harvest, a BVLOS drone can help determine which fields are ready to combine first. Although some farmers now carry out these kinds of surveillance tasks with fixed wing aircraft, a BVLOS drone would be more cost effective.

Aruja said the commercial RPAS industry in Canada has doubled in size every two years over the past decade. More than 1,000 companies now design, manufacture or operate drones in a variety of applications. Last year, more than 3,000 commercial drone pilots were trained in Canada. Commercial pilots must demonstrate piloting skills by flying a drone for an examiner.

“For people in the advanced category, the beyond visual line of sight group, it’s pretty flexible. You can fly higher altitudes. There’s really not much that’s excluded, depending on your level of training and your equipment. This new licensing system will produce better pilots across the country.

“Basically, this is good news for farmers in Western Canada. Until now, a farmer had to re-apply for his license every year. Now he gets his license just once and keeps it. You have to do the online re-test every two years, but that’s no big deal. And we’re actively working on the issues of beyond visual line of sight.”

The regulation change is the first of four planned regulatory development phases to improve the rules for operating small drones weighing less than 25 kilograms in visual line of sight.

USC Mission Statement

  • To promote public awareness, education and appreciation for the Canadian unmanned vehicle systems community to its members, to Canadians and to international organizations in our sector.
  • To represent the interests of the unmanned vehicle systems community, including industry, academia, government, military and the Canadian public.
  • To promote and facilitate the growth of the Canadian unmanned vehicle systems community through education, advocacy, and exchange of ideas and technologies.

About the author


Stories from our other publications