I spent 12 years dangling from helicopters capturing aerial photographs for my clients. In that time I sustained a few minor injuries, blacked out once and had two close calls with death but I managed to survive. Many aerial photographers and their pilots did not. The day that drones branched out from the military to also become tools of the trade for photographers was a great day indeed. Certainly, drones can be used for nefarious, violent and privacy-invading purposes, but they are also an incredible and life-saving tool. Search and rescue, industrial inspections, planting trees and fertilizing crops, defibrillator deployment, wildlife conservation, accident scene investigation, aerial photography, aerial light shows, pizza delivery – these are just a few of the amazing ways that drones are being used daily.
When it comes to drone use in Canada, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions. I cannot tell you how many times I have been operating my drone on a photo assignment in Kelowna in full compliance with the law when someone approaches me to exclaim, “Hey! It’s illegal to fly that thing!” I’ve had threats of physical harm and I’ve had the RCMP called many, many times.
In Canada, drones - referred to as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems – are regulated by Transport Canada. The complete Canadian Aviation Regulations for drones can be found via this page: https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/drone-safety/flying-your-drone-safely-legally
What you can and cannot do with a drone in Canada basically comes down to which license you hold: basic or advanced. If you have a basic license, you can fly in uncontrolled airspace, 30 meters away from bystanders, three nautical miles from an airport and one nautical mile from a heliport. If you do not meet every one of these conditions then you require an advanced license. The third option is to purchase a drone that weighs less than 250 grams and then you can do whatever you want so long as you are not operating it in a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger a person or aviation safety.
“Flying a drone is like driving a car,” explains Jason Rule, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector with Transport Canada. “You need a driver’s license, registration and you need to follow the rules of the road. You also need to follow other criminal laws of Canada like impaired driving. Apply the same logic to the drone world – pilot’s license, aircraft registration and permission from the landowner/City and airspace provider.”
Canada’s airspace is divided up into certain classes primarily based upon how busy or how sensitive that airspace is. A handy tool to see what kind of airspace you are in and what you can do within the category that you fly (basic, advanced or less than 250 grams) can be explored at https://nrc.canada.ca/en/drone-tool/. In Kelowna, from the South Mission to the north of Oyama and from Okanagan Lake to the valley’s eastern mountains and everything in between, is a Class D airspace managed by NavCanada. This means that no pilot may operate a drone within this region unless they hold an advanced license.
To dispel some misconceptions about what you can and cannot do with a drone, here are some very basic rules for operating within the Kelowna control zone:
You cannot fly a drone higher than 400 feet above the ground
You must keep the drone in your sight at all times
The drone must be registered and that registration must be displayed on the airframe of the drone
You must notify NavCanada of your intentions and await permission. This can be done online here: https://www.navcanada.ca/en/comms/rpassubmit.html
You cannot fly near emergency operations, forest fires or advertised events
“Never fly a drone near the airport without all of the permissions in place” Rule insists. “However, to fly downtown Kelowna, a drone operator also needs to keep in mind that we have a lot of floatplane and helicopter traffic in the area with heliports and aerodromes so you need to work with these individual operators to be aware of their presence and to give way.”
When it comes to privacy, there are certainly legitimate concerns. With that said, if I am flying my drone a couple of hundred feet above your home (yes, this is legal in the same way that an airplane can fly above your home), unless I have a NASA-installed camera system, your backyard pool will be tiny in a photograph. A person’s face might be a single pixel. As Rule points out, “You must operate your drone high enough over houses that you are not considered to be trespassing. This means hundreds of feet, not simply just above the ground. Privacy issues can be solved quickly by letting homeowners know prior to when you will be operating.”
As for what happens if you don’t follow the rules, “Every law is backed with a designated provision – a monetary fine. A single flight can be in violation of several of these fines” explains Rule.
Drones have made aviation safer, people on the ground safer and they have made it possible to quickly and easily capture photographs and video that would have been impossible only a few years ago. But as the Peter Parker principle goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
So have fun - but be responsible up there.
Here is a list of Transport Canada-approved drone schools that can help you to gain the knowledge, experience and licensing required for the type of flying that you would like to do: https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/drone-safety/find-drone-flight-school
Shawn Talbot is a commercial photographer based in Kelowna and his work can be seen at www.shawntalbot.com