Do you have an SFOC for that? The Ascent of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

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If you have the money to afford a UAV, you have the time to understand the laws surrounding its use, and the responsibility to abide by them.

Like it or not, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) appear to be gaining altitude in ag circles, as one of the newest technologies for precision agriculture. They are already being used to assess crops for flood damage, plant health, pest populations, identify drainage areas, monitor wildlife, locate cattle and otherwise scout farmland. Using normal, infrared or thermal light, on-board cameras can gather geo-referenced images that can be manipulated, recorded, assessed and sometimes, even triangulated into 3D pictures.

Though still in its infancy, many argue UAV use in agriculture has nowhere to go but up. Could they one day be used for very precise aerial applications of pesticides? Or to target micronutrients to certain areas? There are all kinds of speculations, but you have to wonder: is this technology already outrunning legislation? And could the misuse of UAVs as defined now, lead to further public scrutiny of the ag industry?

With every right comes responsibility. In Canada, we have the right to operate unmanned aircraft, and the responsibility to do so in a safe and respectful, law-abiding manner. In agriculture, we often take privileges such as this for granted. I don’t worry that UAVs in agriculture will be used in unnecessary/disrespectful operations, but that even the basic laws and regulations set out by Transport Canada will be ignored, for whatever reason, and result in huge legal ramifications.
Did you know, for example, that the moment a “model aircraft” is used for non-liesure activities in Canada, it is termed a UAV and requires a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) in order to fly legally? No? Does a $5000 or $25000 penalty for noncompliance sound affordable?
Did you know, for example, that the moment a “model aircraft” is used for non-liesure activities in Canada, it is termed a UAV and requires a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) in order to fly legally?

For those of you who would like a better understanding of the rules governing model aircraft (and specifically for those of you who own one), I have done some research on Transport Canada’s website and translated my understandings below.

What is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle?

According to Transport Canada, a “model aircraft” is an aircraft that does not exceed 35kg (77.2 pounds) in weight, is mechanically driven or launched for recreational purposes and is not designed to carry living creatures. If any one of those descriptors is no longer true, but the aircraft is still designed to fly sans on-board operator, it is referred to as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (a UAV also differs from a “model aircraft” in that it can run on “autopilot”). Please note the recreational distinction. According to Transport Canada’s Staff Instruction (downloadable as a pdf), “once the model aircraft is launched for any reason other than recreational purposes, it is an unmanned air vehicle.”

From Transport Canada's  Staff Instruction: The review and processing of an application for a Special Flight Operations Certificate for the Operation of an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) System
From Transport Canada’s
Staff Instruction: The review and processing of an application for a Special Flight Operations Certificate for the Operation of an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) System

Do I need a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC)? If you are operating a UAV, you need an SFOC. It’s just that simple. How do I get a Special Flight Operations Certificate? If you’re interested in flying a UAV, you must apply for an SFOC through your appropriate Regional Transport Canada General Aviation Office (found here) at least twenty working days prior to proposed operation. The application process is outlined on Transport Canada’s website, with further descriptions throughout the aforementioned document: The review and processing of an application for a Special Flight Operations Certificate for the Operation of an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) System. What are the ramifications of noncompliance? If it is found that UAVs are being flown without the mandatory SFOC, information will be forwarded to the Regional Enforcement branch of Transport Canada and the appropriate person(s) will be charged. An individual penalty is $5000 and a corporation penalty is worth $25000. The laws as I understand are neither unreasonable nor impossible to deal with. At the risk of being deemed a stick in the mud (again), I recommend abiding by the rules set out by Transport Canada, not only for your bank account, but also for the potential progress of UAVs in agriculture.

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