Stay Legal, Stay Safe

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While there is a certain ‘cool’ factor about the idea of flying a remote-control plane, Hovdestad emphasizes that UAVs are not toys.

“There should be no confusion here — this is aviation,” he says. “It is about safety in Canadian air space.”

To ensure that safety, Transport Canada requires that any UAV operator using the aircraft for a purpose other than recreation must be certified with a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) that requires proof of:

  • Industry Canada’s radio operator’s certificate
  • Completion of a ground school aviation course
  • Insurance
  • Training on the aircraft
  • Risk Management Program (including an emergency response plan, if UAV goes rogue)

The biggest risk is an operator losing control of the UAV, also known as going rogue. Hovdestad says there have been a several near misses where a UAV went rogue and flew too high into air space, risking a possible collision with an airplane.

“UAVs shouldn’t be flying as high as an airliner but if people don’t understand the airspace requirements above them, it’s not hard to get into controlled air space,” he explains. “Something as simple as a bird strike can threaten an airliner and most useful UAVs are much bigger than birds.”

Most ag UAVs fly at 300 feet and below, which is uncontrolled air space so the risk is low. “But if you’re flying over a field that’s under a major flight path, things can go from very low risk and mundane to high risk in a short period of time.”

Transport Canada has strict oversight of UAVs, but has also strived to allow the industry to grow here. Current U.S. legislation largely prohibits the use of commercial drones.

For agrologist Dale Cowan of Agris, it took six weeks to get approval.

“After about 12 flights, they would allow us to apply for an SFOC for an unspecified location. So now we don’t need to file for individual fields anymore,” he says.

As a new operator, he had to file separate requests to the regional NavCanada office for flying over each field. Each request had to state his plans for flight date and time, location and altitude.

“We’re always very cautious and very aware of our air space. We know where every airstrip is in Ontario,” he says. “You’re sharing the air with licensed pilots. They’re operating with a minimum 500 foot ceiling, so you should never run into a licensed plane, except around an airport.”

The big exceptions, of course, are with the aerial applicators. One may be working over an adjacent field. For that reason alone, UAV operators need detailed situational awareness of flight plans in the area any day the UAV is doing crop surveillance.

Still for Hovdestad, the hype surrounding the use of ag drones by the average farmer is likely high. “Five to 10 years down the road, I think the Canadian UAS industry will be well established and widely used,” he says. “But I think operators will be generally limited to those able to operate at a high level of professionalism in aviation safety and are compliant with the evolving UAS regulations.”

Still, enthusiasm also remains high. And if the recent adoption rate of new technology in agriculture is any indication, the gap may narrow sooner than you think.

About the Author
Tracy Tjaden

Tjaden is a Canadian journalist who has spent the majority of her career writing and editing for magazines, primarily business-related titles.

She grew up on a farm near Winnipeg, worked at several newspapers in Canada before specializing in magazines, with a focus on business, finance and agriculture.

Tjaden was Editor of BCBusiness Magazine in Vancouver and Managing Editor of a financial magazine in New York City before returning to Winnipeg. She is currently editor of the AgAdvance Journal and agadvance online, and can be reached at


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