New rules for recreational drone users
By Darren Lum
Published April 20, 2017
New rules recently announced by Transport Canada are leaving recreation drone users like Carol Moffatt wondering if they go too far, restricting responsible operators to the detriment of the activity.
“I understand drones have been used to spy on neighbours in urban backyards, but that’s not what we want to do here. We want to have beautiful skimming images of our glittering lakes and vistas of fall foliage. It’s different uses,” she said.
Moffatt, reeve of Algonquin Highlands, has owned and operated a drone for about a year and a half to capture aerial footage to see places in difficult to access areas.
“I’m just sort of goofing around in my own yard, photographing my family and friends from 100 feet. All I want to do is get a little aerial footage of [Stanhope] Heritage Day for promotion and things like that,” she said.
The key rules state drones must be marked with contact information and they must not fly higher than 90 metres; at night or in clouds; within 75 metres of buildings, vehicles or people; or within nine kilometres of the centre of any airport, heliport, aerodrome or water aerodrome where aircraft take off and land. Drone users who acquire footage for research, commercial or academic purposes are not affected.
The government said these rules aim to bring greater safety by reducing the number of drone incidents, which have tripled since 2014. These rules apply to model aircraft and recreational drones between 250 grams (or close to half a pound) up to 35 kilograms.
Moffatt said she uses common sense when using her drone, which is the same model being used in real estate and commercially produced videos in the area. She doesn’t take any chances because of the expense of replacement and the safety of others.
The type of drone Moffatt owns has the capability to track its way back to her if it has run low on power. She’s taken the advice of a professional user and has set her drone up so it flies straight up to a predetermined height and returns to her rather than just flying in a straight path from wherever it happens to be coming from. Drones that can be purchased for a few hundred dollars don’t have the same power or technological features, particularly the return-to-operator feature.
Moffatt questions the law requiring drones to be operated within visual sight of the user. Her drone can use a camera via her mobile phone connected to her controller so she doesn’t need to see it to know where it is going.
“It says don’t fly your drone if you can’t keep it in sight. Well, that’s the point. The point is to use your drone to fly over spectacular fall foliage. I don’t have an airplane. I use a drone. So does that mean once it goes across my back 60 acres of my own land, I’m committing a crime or I’m doing something illegal?” she said. “So there has been some reasonableness that has been lost here.”
She acknowledges the laws are necessary because of irresponsible users. Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for conscientious users and those machines with built-in safety features. But much like driving, speed limits apply to all vehicles, regardless of capabilities.
“They don’t have speeding rules for Maserati drivers versus speeding rules for smart car drivers. They just have speeding rules. That’s what they had to do because there is no way on earth they can differentiate between or among the different drones that are out there,” she said.
Stanhope airport’s manager Cam Loucks applauds the changes, which now protect facilities like his.
“The step that Transport Canada has taken was definitely needed. The airspace around certified airports has been protected from drone use for some time now, but the new regulations now address the airspace around registered aerodromes like Stanhope, water aerodromes (seaplane bases), and heliports. It actually protects any area that aircraft use for takeoffs and landings,” he wrote in an email.
He offered an interactive map that drone users can use to identify “no drone zones” (www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng and then search “UAV site selection”).
Although there hasn’t been any complaints or issues at the airport, he said, there was a drone used at the airport without prior permission. He said enforcement after the incident is “extremely difficult” because of the challenge of linking a drone to a particular person.
He adds, “the new regulations make it clear which authorities will investigate reported use in a ‘no drone zone’ and what the maximum monetary penalties are. This is a welcomed change that airport/aerodrome owners and operators need in order to make their respective operations safe and efficient.”
These regulations are also important because they clearly outline the legal expectations for recreational drone users, as far as when and where they can be operated.
There is an inherent issue that faces rural areas when a federal or provincial law is passed, Moffatt said.
“There seems to be blanket decisions made that are addressing concerns in urban areas in certain cases inappropriately applied to rural areas like ours. And so, unfortunately, with so many things, if we could rely on common sense and integrity across the board we wouldn’t have people trying to do video of forest fires or pointing lasers at helicopters,” she said. “Rules are in place to cover the idiots, right? But then what happens the reasonable people get caught up in them? We don’t really have much choice around that.”
One of a few local retailers offering drones is Don van Nood, who has owned The Source electronics store since 1999. He said the rules prevent injury and ensure privacy is respected.
Even without the rules, he believes people, particularly parents with children who receive them, will do the right thing.
“Common sense is going to prevail. Common sense. Don’t fly close to a hydro [tower]. Don’t fly near a highway – for the kid’s safety and the people in a car. Even if you get a helicopter that size,” he said, pointing to a remote control helicopter the size of an orange, “[that] hits a car window, what’s it going to do? A person could freak out and go off the road, right?” he said.
Locally, drones are not exactly everywhere you go. Drone sales for van Nood only account for as much as two per cent of his revenue, the majority of which are more toylike. His most expensive models are available online and are capable of exceeding the height restriction.
James Keller, a former commercial user, believes there should be rules, but wonders about enforcement.
“I think there is good reasoning behind the new restrictions, but I feel that it’s punishing responsible pilots as well. Every drone pilot I know has gone above 90 metres for aerial photographs,” he wrote in an email. “A better approach would be to have a licence to pilot a drone, just like you would a car, or plane. These drones have complex systems that assist with returning to you safely, and avoiding obstacles. Sure, in the wrong hands they can be dangerous, but so can a bicycle. These regulations are going to be very difficult to enforce.”
Keller adds he is no longer a commercial user due to the time consuming application process for the requisite Special Flight Operations Certificate.
Loucks said education is an important component in reducing the incidents between aircraft and drones around airports and uncontrolled airspace. There are plans for signage to educate the public on drone use near the facility and there will be links to the new regulations and the interactive map on the airport portion of the municipality’s website.
Moffatt appreciates the overall effort to reduce incidents between drones, people and aircraft. However, she said, there will always be people who abide by the laws and those who don’t.
“They’ve put in place what they think they have to and I think the people for whom they made the rules are going to ignore the rules and the people who were using common sense and courteous users will use common sense and be courteous users, but they may in fact be breaking the rules,” she said.
Non-compliance could cost a user up to $3,000 in fines. The public is encouraged to contact local police if illegal drone use is witnessed. For non-emergency actions, the public can fill out an incident report with their mobile device, tablet or computer. For more information visit www.canada.ca/drone-safety.