A drone under the tree this Christmas?

by Brent Eades

As Christmas approaches, drones are likely on a lot of gift wish lists.

Readers may know that I bought a camera drone some time ago (a DJI Spark, for those interested in such things.)

In conversations I’ve called it “the best toy ever” — but as far as Transport Canada is concerned it’s not a toy. It’s a machine capable of causing damage if it’s misused — in the worst case, it could bring down an airliner. More on that in a moment.

Before you buy a new drone, here are the key things you should know about Transport Canada’s interim regulations on drones and safety.

DJI Spark

Weight limit

The regulations apply to recreational drones weighing more than 250 grams, which includes most of the popular camera-equipped models.

Drones weighing 250 grams or less aren’t subject to the regulations because of their small size and limited range. (Note that drones in this class, while inexpensive, lack the automated features found in costlier ones and are more prone to crashing.)

Staying safe

If your drone weighs more than 250 grams you must fly it:

  • during the day and not in clouds
  • within your sight at all times
  • only if you’re 14 years old or older 
  • within 500 m of yourself or closer
  • below 90 m above the ground
  • at least 30 m away from vehicles, vessels, and the public (if your drone weighs more than 250 g up to 1 kg; 75 m if it weighs more than 1 kg)
  • at least 5.5 km away from aerodromes (any airport, seaplane base, or areas where aircraft take off and land)
  • at least 1.8 km away from heliports or aerodromes used by helicopters only — this includes the air ambulance pad at Almonte hospital
  • outside of controlled or restricted airspace
  • at least 9 km away from a natural hazard or disaster area
  • away from areas where operation could interfere with police or first responders

These rules are common sense, really. Some popular consumer drones, like the DJI Phantom, weigh over three pounds and can reach 70-plus km an hour — that could do some damage if it veered into a crowd or traffic.

(Exceptions to some of the rules may be granted, under stringent conditions — for instance, to commercial operators shooting aerial scenes like those in two of the Hallmark movies filmed here.)

Keeping drones away from aircraft is especially critical. In October, some fool managed to hit the wing of a passenger plane on its approach to a Quebec City airport. While there were no injuries, transport minister Marc Garneau said the drone could have caused “catastrophic” damage had it hit an engine or incapacitated the pilot.

The aircraft struck by the drone was a a Beech King Air A100 (stock photo)

General advice

Drone novices are usually advised to start small — to go with a light and inexpensive machine and master it before taking on on a more expensive model. Though as noted, the basic ones can be hard to fly. (A friend bought his young sons inexpensive drones, and within an hour both machines were lost for good in the nearby woods. “There were tears,”  he recalled.)

As well, countless drones are collecting dust in cupboards after their owners lose interest, or find them harder to fly than expected.

That said, they can be a lot of fun. Just be sure to always put safety first.