Want to fly drones in Canada – legally? You’ll need to get a drone pilot certificate from Transport Canada, which is the department within the Government of Canada responsible for developing regulations, policies and services of related to air transportation (including drones!) in Canada.
No matter who you are — a hobby drone pilot or a commercial drone pilot — all people operating a drone in candidate must carry a valid drone pilot certificate issued by Transport Canada at all times (either printed out or able to be shown electronically, such as on a phone) while operating their drone. But the type of operation depends on the level of complexity of your flight. Transport Canada breaks down their drone pilot certificates into two categories: Basic and Advanced.
Unlike the Federal Aviation Administration’s breakdown of drone flights in the U.S., where flights are classified based on recreational versus commercial pilots (basically, ‘are you making money or not?’), Canada breaks down the level of licensing you need based on how complex your flight is. In the U.S., people flying for pay need a Part 107 Drone Pilot Certificate. In the U.S., people flying for free generally just need to register their drone.
And in a lot of ways, the Transport Canada drone licensing process makes sense. Someone flying for pay in an empty field with a small drone in your site at all times is not as risky as someone flying ‘for fun’ a heavy drone around buildings in a crowded city. Whether or not you’re getting paid likely shouldn’t make a difference — which is the logic behind the Transport Canada drone rules.
Basic drone flight operations in Canada
Basic is the easier of the tiers of flight in order to legally fly drones in Canada.
What types of flight count as ‘basic drone flight operations’ in Canada?
Basic drone flight operations in Canada are drone flights that meet all 5 of the below conditions:
- You fly in uncontrolled airspace.
- You fly more than 30 meters (100 feet) horizontally from bystanders.
- You never fly over bystanders.
- You stay at least 3 nautical miles from certified airports and/or military aerodromes.
- You stay at least 1 nautical mile from certified heliports.
Even if you fail to meet just one of those conditions, your flight is considered an advanced operation.
What does Transport Canada require to legally fly under the basic drone operations rules?
For basic operations, it’s easy! Simply take the online exam. Once you do, you’ll automatically receive your Pilot Certificate – Basic Operations, which you can download and save digitally or print a digital copy (you may be asked to show it to authorities at any time) through the Drone Management Portal.
You’ll also need to register your drone with Transport Canada and ensure that number is marked on it before flight.
When does my Pilot Certificate – Basic Operations expire?
Your certificate is valid for two years. Every 24 months, you’ll need to complete one of the following recency requirements:
- Re-taking and passing either the Basic or Advanced Knowledge examination;
- Successfully passing a flight review ; or
- Completing any one of the following training activities:
- attendance at a safety seminar endorsed by Transport Canada Aviation;
- completion of an drone recurrent training program from a drone flight school; or
- completion of a Transport Canada endorsed self-paced study program
Advanced drone flight operations in Canada
Advanced drone flight operations require more intensive training, but also unlock the ability to fly drones in significantly more places and under more circumstances.
What types of flight count as ‘advanced drone flight operations’ in Canada?
If you are flying in any of the below conditions while in Canada, you’re conducting advanced operations:
- You fly in controlled airspace.
- You fly over bystanders.
- You fly within 30 meters (100 feet) of bystanders (measured horizontally).
- You fly within 3 nautical miles of a certified airport or a military aerodrome.
- You fly within 1 nautical mile of a certified heliport.
What does Transport Canada require to legally fly under the advanced drone operations rules?
Unsurprisingly, it takes a decent (though not impossible or unreasonable) amount of time and effort in order to fly drones under Transport Canada’s advanced rules.
For starters, you’ll need to register your drone with Transport Canada and mark that registration number clearly on the drone.
You’ll also need to make sure you fly the right type of drone that meets the safety requirements for operation. Check out Transport Canada’s guide to choosing the right drone before you fly. You’ll need to ensure your drone has the appropriate Safety declaration for the intended operation.
Passing the Transport Canada drone exam and flight review
And now for the most onerous part of the process to legally fly drones under the advanced drone operations rules.
Small Advanced Exam: The Small Advanced Exam is a 50 question, multiple choice test. You have 60 minutes to complete the exam, and you’ll need a score of 80% or higher to a pass.
Luckily, the exam can be taken online and only costs $10 to take. If you fail the online exam, you must wait 24 hours before trying again. You can re-take it as many times as you wish.
That said, the test is fairly difficult and cannot be passed on common sense along. Test topic include flight theory, airframes, flight instruments, meteorology, air law and more.
To avoid having to retake the test (and re-pay $10 every time), it’s best to sign up for an online study course. I recommend the AlteX Drone Ground School, which covers all of those topics through both self-paced learning and live webinars, so you can absorb the information through your preferred learning style. Their course costs $195.
Flight review: Once you pass the written test, you can move onto the flight review through a self-declared drone flight school, upon which your flight reviewer will assess your ability to operate your drone safely.
The in-person flight review goes over topics including flight setup, flight instruments, maneuvers, intelligent flight features, how to record flights and more. If you happen to be in southern Ontario, I recommend AlteX, which makes things headache free by also offering 3-hour sessions of in-person, drone flight training at $295 — all but guaranteeing you’ll pass the real flight review.
You can see the full list of approved flight schools to undergo your flight review here. And yes, AlteX is one of the approved drone flight schools for drone flight reviews.
Prices for the flight review are set by each school, though AlteX’s is $245.
Once you have passed both, you can fly within the operational limits of your drone as long as you can show proof of your certificate and registration, and you’ve also received permission from air traffic control (NAV CANADA or the Department of National Defence) if you’re flying in controlled airspace. To do that, you can request an RPAS Flight Authorization from NAV CANADA.
If you have a Pilot Certificate – Advanced Operations, you do not need a Pilot Certificate – Basic Operations to conduct basic operations.
Exceptions if you’re flying a micro drone (drones under 250 grams)
If your drone is under 250 grams, good news! You don’t need to register or get a drone pilot certificate at all. That’s a relief for many FPV racing pilots whose drones are often extremely light, as well as the generally-hobby-oriented drone pilots flying smaller drones such as the DJI Mini 2, as well as those low-cost toy drones for kids. Really the only requirement is to use common sense.
“You must not operate your drone in a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger aviation safety or the safety of anyone,” according to Transport Canada.
Have you gotten a drone pilot license from Transport Canada? What experience do you have? Share your advice for others in the comments below!