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

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.

 

Debra Murphy

Debra Murphy is a Field Editor based out of central Alberta, where she never misses a moment to capture with her camera the real beauty of agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @RealAg_Debra

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12 Comments

Corben

Can’t a guy recreationally fly the planes, but then commercially edit and sell the data that it happened to collect….

Reply
flitelab.com

Looks like my first reply didn’t post…Legally no, if its going to be used for commercial purposes directly or indirectly then an SFOC is required. You can certainly play in the grey area and risk the fine, in the end it will come down to Transport Canada making a decision.

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Brian Goff

can you show me where the Legal part comes in… I have read the Transport Canada “regulation” Where is the Judicial review? any precedent?

Legal = Law, and there just isn’t any here.

Corben… you can fly for fun, what you do when you are done is your Private business…

flitelab.com

The SFOC application is mainly to document the operation and procedures that will be used and to detail the equipment and personnel involved, along with specifics on the location and dates. It does nothing to prepare the operator, and is part is used to document the operator is ready and competent.

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Marcus UAV

So really, what you said is self contradicting– if they are not actually trained on flying a uav, then they are not competent in flying one…

flitelab.com

I’m not sure what you found contradicting or perhaps I misunderstood your original question.

The SFOC in and of itself doesn’t prepare the user for anything. It is basically a permit to operate a specific UAV on a specific date and a specific location with a specific crew.

Part of the application is documenting the personnel, their roles, and their experience/training as it relates to the work to be done.

The information submitted in the application will then be used by Transport Canada to determine if they feel confident an SFOC is safe to be grated for the defined conditions, part of which would take into account the noted experience of the crew.

At this point in time there is no recognized/required UAV pilot license or training certificate that Transport Canada requires. This is under review and may be coming with changes currently in review with working groups, but none exists at this time.

The actual getting experience or training is up to the operator to be responsible for, and is outside of the SFOC process. The SFOC process in no part involves any direct training aspect. It is merely a government process to grant access to operate for a specific operation.

Aaron

Do you know of anywhere that has sample SFOC? I’m trying to write one, but have no idea if I’m doing it correctly.

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bgoo

The SFOC and Transport Canada are a complete joke (what else would you expect?). They are an underfunded and sloppily understaffed organization. Go ahead and try to apply for an SFOC. You will not receive a reply. You will not be acknowledged. Their offices are COMPLETELY INUNDATED with SFOC applications from people buying aerial drones in DROVES now that mass-market UAV’s are priced under $1500 for very professional results. I’ve been applying steadily since December 2013 in Toronto and have not received any acknowledgement. I went and consulted on enthusiast forums and dozens report the same issue. Transport Canada and the Canadian government are so overwhelmed with other issues they are far from prepared to deal with this current market proliferation.

The only people receiving cooperation from TC are the sanctioned flying clubs in local cities that have direct contact and relationships with TC staff. So unless you want to be held hostage to pay membership dues to those organizations, you are playing a lottery. You are better off to fly it to your heart’s content and claim recreational use until TC gets their overpaid government-pensioned employees to actually put in a realistic days work. And guess what… now that they are overwhelmed, they will just give the individual small-time aerial photographer SO MUCH red tape that they will never receive the permit to fly at-will.

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kelvin

If I fly drone in safe places to take videos. If i post this video on my facebook to share with friends and families and not profitting from it. Would I still require SFOC?

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EasySFOC

Areas that are deemed “safe” by Transport Canada are very specific. You would, at the very least need to measure the distance from the location of the flight to the nearest group of houses, airports or any other structures. If it meets the exemptions put forth by TC, then you would be okay as a recreational user.

That being said, applying for an SFOC is getting easier, we launched an online platform to apply for an SFOC in any region in Canada for just $400. The SFOC allows you much greater flexibility and is the responsible way to go if you are serious about getting involved in UAV operations.

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