Got the drone, but how about your permit to fly it?

Transport Canada deems field-scouting activities as commercial and therefore a Special Flight Operating certificate is required

Farmers flying drones to check their crops or livestock could get their wings clipped by Transport Canada if they don’t have a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC).

“It is Transport Canada policy that UAVs operating in Canada must meet equivalent levels of safety as manned aircraft,” Transport Canada’s website says. “Requirements for the operation of a UAV fall under the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs).”

It can take 10 to 20 business days to get a SFOC, said Martin Eley, director general of civil aviation at Transport Canada, in an interview July 11. The process can take longer if the applicant doesn’t clearly explain where and when the proposed flight or flights are to occur. And the operator needs to have liability insurance.

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Every time

In some cases applicants have to apply for SFOC every time they want to fly, which would be impractical for farmers. However, Transport Canada has issued certificates allowing applicants to fly in different areas, multiple times under certain circumstances, Eley said.

“If the farmer wants to fly over his own fields that’s one thing, but if he wants to go to his neighbour’s that’s something else,” he said. “If he wants to do something very specific it would normally be limited to that area. As people do it a number of times and demonstrate they have the capability there would probably be more flexibility there. You might start off saying ‘you can do this in your field Tuesday but with more experience you can do it any time you like in your field under these conditions.'”

Rejean Picard, a farm production advisor with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Somerset, has been experimenting with a camera-equipped UAV and believes they are a new a useful tool for farmers. He hopes Transport Canada’s regulations don’t ground farmer UAVs just as they’re about to take off.

A story about UAVs published in the Manitoba Co-operator June 26 incorrectly inferred farmers checking crops or animals, like those flying for fun, wouldn’t require a SFOC.

Eley stressed anyone flying a UAV for commercial purposes must have a SFOC. And since a farmer could benefit economically from checking crops with a UAV, it’s considered a commercial use.

Reviewing policies

Transport Canada is reviewing its policies to see if it can be more flexible given the growing interest among farmers in drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Eley said.

“As people demonstrate they understand their responsibilities and they can do it properly that sort of leads to flexibility,” Eley said. “So it may seem a little tough at first…”

“I see the need for safety,” Picard said, adding farmers understand that and are accustomed to dealing regulations around pesticide and fertilizer use. “I think farmers would need a blanket certificate because they need to be able to fly in a timely manner.”

UAV pilots also need to use common sense, Picard said. For example, UAVs shouldn’t be flown near airports or when crop dusters are flying, he said.

“But Western Canada has a lot of wide open spaces with few people around and there aren’t many airports in rural areas,” he said.

UAVs are getting cheaper to buy and easier to fly. The four-propeller, battery-powered DGI Phantom 2 drone Picard flies costs around $700, but adding a gimbal (a pivoted support that allows the rotation of an object about a single axis) and GoPro still and video camera brought the price to $2,500. It also includes a seven-inch screen that allows the pilot to see live what the camera sees.

Some UAVs have a return-to-home application if the pilot loses contact with the device. Some can be programmed to fly a pre-determined flight path.

Bird’s eye view

Getting a bird’s eye view of fields will help farmers monitor crops for damage from pests, bad weather, nutrient deficiencies or spray drift. While a UAV won’t eliminate the need to walk fields, they can help point farmers in the right direction, Picard said.

See the trouble spot? Rejean Picard points to a troubled spot in a field on a slide taken from a drone’s camera.

See the trouble spot? Rejean Picard points to a troubled spot in a field on a slide taken from a drone’s camera.
photo: Laura Rance

“It can hover a couple of feet off the ground, take a picture and then you can upload it to your computer,” he said in an earlier interview. “I think you could even do plant counts if you know the seed row spacing.”

Eley acknowledged Transport Canada doesn’t have a lot inspectors looking for farmers flying UAVs illegally.

“It’s like wearing a seatbelt in your car,” he said. “You might get away not wearing it, but if you get caught, don’t complain.”
Failing to have a SFOC can result in fines of several thousands of dollars, he added.

“There are potential consequences. Does that mean we’ll be checking every farmer’s field? No. What we want to do is educate people to understand the risk. And as we move forward and look at the way we manage these things there may be more flexibility as we get our heads around that.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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