In Canada, the use of drones for pesticide application, otherwise known as Remote Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), is regulated by two Federal Departments: Transport Canada establishes regulations for safe operation and Health Canada for the registration and conditions of use of pest control products.
Drones are already used in Canadian agriculture for crop surveillance and livestock management, and they’re being used to apply granular fertilizers, for pollination, for frost protection and greenhouse shade management. The use of drones for general spraying was cleared by Transport Canada in July 2017. In 2018, Health Canada stipulated that the use of RPAS for pesticide application is not allowed under the Pest Control Products Act (PCPA) without sufficient data to characterize the hazards or risks associated with this use. You can read the updated (as of June, 2023) Pest Management Regulatory Agency Information note on the subject of pesticides applied by drone, here.
At this time this article was written, only three pest control products were registered for application by RPAS in Canada. These were restricted-use microbials (two granular and one liquid) intended for larval mosquito control. Their labels were expanded to include RPAS in the fall of 2022 but as of 2023 no province or territory has yet permitted their application. International RPAS working groups (e.g. the OECD working party on pesticides and drones) comprised of academics, the agrichemical industry, government regulatory agencies, and both drone manufacturers and operators, are working collaboratively to assemble the evidence-based information we need to inform the expansion of other pesticide labels. These studies include:
- comparative evaluations of efficacy
- operator and bystander exposure studies
- drift studies
- residue studies, and
- technical evaluations of how environmental, topographical, and operational parameters affect the above
In parallel, several groups are working to develop pesticide safety certification and training materials. Pesticide training and certification programs across Canada are based on the Standard for Pesticide Education, Training and Certification in Canada. Canadian provinces/territories are responsible for the training and certification of pesticide vendors and applicators based on these standards. A national core manual for RPAS operator is anticipated.
Registration and Certification
Anticipating future pesticide label expansions, perhaps you’re planning to buy and fly a RPAS. Pilots must register their drone (online for a $5 fee) and display that number on the drone. For more information, the Canadian Aviations Regulations (CARs) covers drones here. It’s a massive document, so jump to the end to find the relevant information under Section IX.
Transport Canada requires all pilots with RPAS over 250 g to obtain a Pilot Certificate, either for Basic Operations or for Advanced Operations. In some cases, pilots may also have to apply for Special Flight Operations Certification (SFOC), which must be approved before the mission can take place. See below for details.
Basic Operations Pilot Certificate
The Basic Operations certificate allows pilots to operate any drone from 250 g up to and including 25 kg. This allows the pilot to fly:
- Outside controlled airspace
- No closer than 100 ft laterally from bystanders
- In VLOS (or in contact with someone in VLOS)
- Over 1.8 km from heliports
- Over 5.6 km from airports
If you’d like to explore the requirements, Transport Canada has an online document called TP15263 which describes required knowledge for Basic Operation pilots of small RPAS. Personally, I took a $100 online course (from a Canada-based drone flight school) to help me prepare for my exam. A good course will supply you with what you need to know about the laws, the environment, the aircraft, and your responsibilities as a pilot.
The $5 exam has 35 multiple choice questions. You have 90 minutes to complete it and you need a 65% to pass. It was a surprisingly challenging exam, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t pass on your first try. You can take another swing at it after 24 hours, and you’ll encounter new questions randomly drawn from their database.
Advanced Operations Pilot Certificate
The Advanced Operations certificate allows pilots to operate any approved RPAS over 25 kg in VLOS. This allows the pilot to fly:
- Inside controlled airspace
- No closer than 16.4 ft laterally from bystanders
- Under 16.4 ft above bystanders (essentially directly overhead)
- In VLOS (or in contact with someone in VLOS)
- Within 1.8 km from heliports
- Within 5.6 km from airports
There are two parts to this certification. The $10 exam requires an 80% to pass, covers more topics than the Basic Operations exam, and has the same 24h wait to retry. You must also undergo a Flight Review with a certified trainer, who changes about $200 for the service. Once the exam and flight review are successfully completed, there’s a $25 issuing cost. Be aware that flying a drone over 25 kg will also require an SFOC.
Special Flight Operations Certificate
In some cases pilots will have to apply for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). Based on the CARs part IX regulatory structure, examples include operating a drone over 25 kg, flying at an advertised event, operating with foreign credentials (i.e. not a Canadian pilot) or operating outside the rules for Basic or Advanced operations, such as Beyond Visual Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS). Note, the requirements surrounding SFOC’s are under review as Transport Canada reassesses weight classes and streamlines the process, which can take weeks or months to complete. The new requirements are anticipated in late 2023 or early 2024 in Canada Gazette 2 (the 2019 update to Gazette 1 can be found here).
Once you have your Certificate(s) you must carry a copy with you while flying. Technically, Pilot Certification doesn’t expire, but you still have to maintain it. According to CARs 901.56, pilots cannot operate a drone unless they have successfully completed the following within 24 months preceding the flight:
- Testing / Issue of their pilot certificate (Basic or Advanced).
- A Flight Review
- Any of the recurrent training activities set out in section 921.04 of Standard 921. This is an online questionnaire that has the answers posted right after each question. Don’t ask… just comply. Be sure to print it out after you complete it because it doesn’t save the answers.
Just like the Certificate, the pilot must have Proof of Recency with them at all times. Unlike certification, it’s free.
Every owner of a remotely piloted aircraft has to keep certain records. They need to be with you while flying for a certain period of time and all records must be transferred with the system if you sell or give it to a new owner.
- The name of the pilot(s) and crew involved with each flight, noting time and date (keep with you while flying for 12 months).
- Any maintenance, modification or repair of the RPAS, including precisely who did what and when. This should detail the instructions used to complete the work (keep with you while flying for 24 months).
Fines and Enforcement
Fines for contravening regulations range from a maximum of $3,000 for an individual to a maximum of $25,000 for a corporation. The RCMP and local police are part of the enforcement team.
Get certified before you buy your RPAS, and do your research before you commit to a system. Rotor-based RPAS design is changing rapidly as manufacturers adapt to the demands of North American and European applicators. We once thought a swarm of lightweight, nozzled drones would be the path to success, and now the industry is leaning towards larger solitary drones with payloads over 40L and rotary atomizers instead of conventional nozzles.
Be sure you understand what they can and what they cannot do. Only buy from a reputable dealer with practical spraying experience, and not someone with slick advertising that over-promises RPAS work rate, swath width, reduced drift or improved coverage potential. Ask to see data and remember: It is currently illegal to spray pesticides from a drone in Canada, whether it is on your property or not.