Tighter drone regulations affect agricultural use

Restrictions to within nine kilometres of an ‘aerodrome’ affect much of agricultural Manitoba

Assiniboine Community College’s agribusiness program has grounded most drone flights while professors sort through new regulations around their operation.

The new Transport Canada rules released March 16 limit recreational drones between 250 grams and 35 kilograms to within 90 metres of the ground, at least 75 metres away from structures, people or vehicles, to daylight hours only and at least nine kilometres away from any “aerodrome.” That’s defined as “airports, heliports and seaplane bases or anywhere that aircraft take off and land,” which includes small airports in rural areas.

The new rules do not affect agricultural drone use, which is classified as commercial or research, but those regulations have also changed in the last two years. The weight exemption threshold, previously set at two kilograms, has since been eliminated to include lighter drones.

Transport Canada says anyone operating a drone for agricultural use must have a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) or meet 61 exemption requirements, including flying at least five nautical miles away from the centre of an aero­drome, three nautical miles from the centre of a heliport, not flying in known icing conditions or over 300 feet above ground level and performing a site survey prior to launch.

Matt Johnson of M3 Aerial Productions, which offers agricultural drone services and training, says completing a ground school is required for commercial flight, regardless of other exemption criteria.

“They still need to take the course, the training course, and they still need to co-ordinate and communicate with NAV Canada at least to set up their initial flight,” Johnson said. “If they’re going to fly their same field 10 times in a season, they have to co-ordinate with Transport Canada at least once to let them know that they’re going to be operating in that area and see if it’s OK to get standing approval for the rest of the season without having to get an SFOC.”

Extensive training

Pam Wilson, an ACC agribusiness faculty member, says students are first learning about drone use and regulations before making their first flight. She has been working for the past year to complete her own ground school and SFOC application.

“There’s things like weather patterns and I have to basically know as much as a pilot would have to know before they fly a plane, because there’s a lot of different airspace you can fly in.”

Wilson said regulation has especially affected agriculture, as work and home are often on the same parcel of land, blurring the line between commercial and recreational use.

“If you were a farmer who was just like, ‘Oh, I want to see what a picture of my crop looks like,’ that’s not really (recreational use) either, because you could use that to make some business decisions. So that is now research and it’s actually becoming part of work.”

Significant investment

Johnson said that on top of the ground school cost of about $550, at least $100,000 of aviation liability insurance is required, which also costs about $550. An Industry Canada radio use certification is also often required for an SFOC.

A drone may cost well over $1,000, while specialized infrared lenses and sensors will each run in the thousands of dollars.

“When we’re talking about drone packages, it’s never just the cost of the drone, which is like $1,500. It’s the drone plus the batteries, because if you only have one battery or two batteries, it’s very limiting in what you can do and probably very frustrating to the farmer,” Johnson said.

His ground school course includes 16 class hours, plus about 15 hours of online components. It’s been held in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Brandon since November 2016. He plans to hold courses in Guelph and another in Winnipeg before his own peak flying season begins in summer.

The SFOC application itself includes a description of how, when and where an operator will fly their drone and a detailed safety-management plan. A restricted operator SFOC may be valid for a year, while proven operators may apply for a three-year SFOC. Transport Canada aims to process SFOC requests within 20 working days.

DIY may not pay

Little Morden Service near Morden, Man., was among the businesses to offer do-it-yourself agricultural drone technology. In 2015, it launched a drone and software package worth $8,000 using a quadcopter with infrared lens to track healthy growth in the field.

“The program that we offered never really took off,” sales representative Norman Friesen said. “I guess in our area we’re not quite there yet. The farm sizes were just a bit too small. They were getting that information from, I guess, third-party companies.”

Customers often expressed concern over flying regulations such as distance from airports and line-of-sight requirements, he said.

“With the regulations and everything, it’s not worth it,” Wilson said. “Keep it as a toy. I think there’s enough guys out there who do this for a living that paying them to do it might cost more, but then they assume the liability.”

Despite having to curb her own drone work, ACC’s Wilson acknowledged the need for regulation.

“I’ve heard so many stupid stories of people doing just ridiculous things with drones, so I do understand why they’ve tightened this stuff up.”

This article was originally published on the Manitoba Co-operator.