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How to Become a Drone Pilot in Canada (Explained for Beginners)

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Flying a drone safely and legally in Canada is a very rewarding experience, but the journey to get to your Transport Canada Advanced Operations Certificate can seem a little daunting.

I know because I went through the process right when the pilot licensing process came out in 2019 and, let me tell you, I wish I had someone helping me through it. I’ve been flying drones for a living ever since and I stand by the rigorous process Transport Canada has put into place in order to ensure safety in the skies.

To obtain your Advanced Operations Drone Certificate in Canada, you must pass the Transport Canada online exam, pass an in person flight review, and finally, apply and pay a fee to Transport Canada to be issued your certificate.

Seems simple enough right? Well, like anything in life, nothing is as simple as it seems. There are a few caveats in the process as well as an extra exam that is technically not required to obtain your advanced certificate, but depending on the situations you’ll be flying in, it may be mandatory to do. 

For example, I had to do this exam to obtain the extra certificate to even move forward with my flight review. There are so many different types of flying environments and rules that can make flying a drone in Canada super confusing, so before we get into the steps involved in getting your Advanced, let’s go over some general rules and why we need to get this certificate in the first place.

General Rules for Flying Drones in Canada #

Everything discussed here regarding certification and rules apply to drones between 250g and 25kg. If you have a drone under 250g, like a DJI Mini 2, there is no need to get certification in Canada, so congratulations, you can stop reading here! 

If you are interested in the rules that apply to sub 250g drones, you can check them out here.

If the opposite is true, and you have a drone over 25kg, you will need a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) and you can find the information regarding that here

Now, for everyone else, buckle up and read on.

The drone pilot certification process is managed by Transport Canada, which is the department within the Government of Canada responsible for transportation policies and programs. They ensure safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible transportation from the air, ground, and water. 

Drones fall under their aviation category of rules compiled into a document, which is called the Canadian Aviation Regulations or CARs for short. This enormous document lists all the regulations that have to do with aviation, and the rules for drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) are in section 900. 

By the way, CARs will be a very useful resource to you while studying for the advanced certification. 

There are two levels of certification in Canada: basic and advanced. If I were to take a wild guess here, I would say you’re reading this because you’re more interested in the advanced certification, but we’ll go through the differences a little later on, because yes, you guessed it, there are things you need to do before certification and rules to follow in either case!

Here are some more general rules that apply to either certification and any drone between 250g and 25kg (more details and rules be found in the CARs):

  1. Never fly your drone in a way that endangers others or is negligent to aviation safety. (This one should be a no-brainer!)
  2. You must register your drone with Transport Canada before flying it. You can do this online through the Transport Canada Drone Management Portal. The fee is currently $5, but is rumoured to increase to $10. Sigh!
  3. You must visibly label your drone with your registration number.
  4. In order to even register a drone, you have to be a citizen or permanent resident of Canada, a corporation under Canadian law, a municipal, provincial or federal entity, and be at least 14 years old (or 16 years old or older if going for an advanced certificate). 
  5. Operate the drone within visual line of sight (VLOS). You need an SFOC to operate beyond visual line of sight.
  6. Stay within Canadian airspace.
  7. You must give way to manned aircraft.
  8. You cannot fly your drone within 12 hours of drinking alcohol.
  9. Establish emergency procedures before take-off.
  10.  Never fly over 400ft (122m), unless clearing a building or structure, in which case you can fly 100ft (30m) over that.

There are many more, but these are the most pertinent without getting too specific. Always refer to the CARs for a complete list of the rules.

Advanced Operations vs. Basic Operations #

So you’ve registered your drone and you agree to follow the general rules, but now you’re wondering what level of certification you’ll need to be able to do what you want to do with your drone. 

Advanced always sounds cooler than basic, but you may not actually need it and you could waste a lot of time and money getting it! 

You’ll only need the advanced certification level if you meet one of the following:

  • You plan on flying in controlled airspace
  • You need to fly less than 3 nautical miles (around 5.6km) from a certified airport or 1 nautical mile (1.9km) from a certified heliport.
  • You want to fly within 30m horizontally from or over bystanders.

You are performing basic operations if:

  • You fly in uncontrolled airspace.
  • You fly more than 3 nautical miles from a certified airport or 1 nautical mile from a certified heliport.
  • You never fly over bystanders or within 30m of them horizontally (link).

How do you know if you are flying in Controlled Airspace? #

Controlled airspace is airspace that has defined dimensions in which air traffic control services are provided. 

In Canada, we have 7 different classes of airspace: Class A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The only airspace class you can fly in with your basic certification is class G, which is considered uncontrolled airspace. 

Controlled airspace in Canada is managed by NAV Canada, a corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation system. Once you are certified advanced, you have to get authorization from NAV Canada for every flight that you do in controlled airspace. 

Seems like a lot of paperwork each time you need to fly, but they have actually simplified the process. They have a new app called NAV Drone that you can input and submit your flight plan or you can do the same application process through their web browser:  NAV can either authorise the flight, reject it or approve it with restrictions. 

But where can you find information on airspace classification for the location you want to fly in? Thankfully, NAV has provided a tool to check what airspace you’re in called the Drone Site Selection Tool and you can find it here.

You’ll be using this tool whenever you go out to fly your drone, so it’s important to become familiar with it. You can also use other resources to check the airspace like aeronautical charts and other online maps, such as this one

Knowing your airspace is an essential part of flight planning as you can see your proximity to the nearest airport or heliport and the confines in which you are bound to fly. It’s also always a good idea to use and familiarize yourself with aeronautical charts as these are part of the exam.

Step-by-step process of getting your Advanced Operations Certificate #

You’ve gone through the criteria and confirmed you actually do need the Advanced Operations Certificate for the way you’re going to use your drone. Now you’re just simply confused about where to start. 

Do you need to attend a drone school? The simple answer to that is, you don’t need to, but you will likely not pass the exam unless you have taken a course or completed a study guide. That’s why I will include it in the step-by-step process. 

So without further ado, here is a step by step process on how to get the Advanced Operations Certificate from Transport Canada:

  1. Enroll in a drone pilot ground school or download a study guide.
  2. Complete the course ensuring you have a good understanding of each module while taking practice exams along the way.
  3. Take the Transport Canada advanced operations online exam. You must pass the test with a score of at least 80%.
  4. Optional: Study for the restricted operator certificate using online resources and write the exam with a passing grade of 70% to obtain your certificate.
  5. Book a flight review through a drone flight school.
  6. Pass the in-person flight review (this is assessed and at the discretion of the flight reviewer).
  7. Apply for the Advanced Operations Certificate online once your flight reviewer submits your results.

Once you’ve completed these steps, congratulations, you are now a certified advanced pilot! That was easy, right? Don’t forget you need to keep your learning up to date every 2 years. After 2 years of having your certification, you must have your recency requirements as well (as per CAR 901.65).

There are several ways to do this, so don’t worry, you don’t need to be taking the advanced exam again and again. You can take the basic exam, advanced, another flight review, use this Transport Canada self-paced study program (link), or other options as well. 

How hard is the Advanced Operations test? #

Level of difficulty completely depends on each person and their level of knowledge and exam taking skills, but the general consensus for this test is that it’s hard. It’s important to actually learn and want to be a good drone pilot rather than just barely sliding by to get your certificate. 

I believe the advanced online exam by Transport Canada is made to be difficult to serve as a sort of barrier to entry, so only the few who really commit themselves and know their stuff can fly in controlled environments. 

I actually like that there’s a bit of a barrier there just for that basic fact. It reduces the number of negligent drone pilots in the air who have the potential of ruining the fun for all of us, as there could be even more potential future restrictions based on their behaviour. Think about it, you want to be able to fly and enjoy as many places as possible without restrictions, as long as you can do it safely. 

So what can you expect from this difficult test? Well, the online exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions and you have an hour to complete it. You must have a passing grade of 80%, which means you must get at least 40 of the 50 questions correct. 

Compared to the basic exam, which consists of 35 multiple choice questions, an hour and a half to complete with a passing grade of 65%, I’d say they’ve really upped the ante for the advanced. 

If you fail, you have to wait at least 24 hours before trying again. I know people who have failed over 4 times, which is really a waste of time and money, so you have to make sure you study! Each time you take the test, that’s another $10 out of your pocket.

Study resources for the Advanced Operations test #

Since you want to keep as much money in your pocket as possible, the best course of action is to not fail the online exam. How do you not fail an exam? You study. 

The best resource I suggest to study for the exam is to enroll in a drone pilot ground school. Not only have they designed a course specifically for this exam and taken all the study structuring work from you, but they can also be your one stop shop for other parts of the process, including your flight review and your ROC-A certificate. 

Back when I was studying for the exam, there were very few options in terms of structured courses specifically designed for this. Now, there are many drone schools available all over Canada. 

You can find a complete list of these schools and sort them by province here.

Of course, enrolling in a course comes at a cost, usually between $250-500 or even more and, if enrolling in a school doesn’t interest you, there are other options. There are smartphone apps to help you study. 

One of them I suggest is RPAS Pilot Ground School, but there are so many other options available on the app store for free. There are also online resources, such as YouTube videos that go through the study material. 

My favourite YouTube resource for this is a channel called Don Drones On.

You can find his videos here. You can also keep up to date with Transport Canada drone news and rules through his channel. 

If you don’t like watching videos and reading suits you more, you can download many pdf study guides online, and some are even available for free. There are just so many options available to you.

The exam covers everything from CARs to weather to theory of flight and so much more and these will all be covered in any good study guide. No matter what method of study you choose, it’s important to really apply yourself and learn the topics needed to succeed in the exam. It will make you a better drone pilot and avoid costly mistakes down the line. 

In-Person Flight Review #

Once you’ve passed the online exam, you now have the daunting in person flight review to complete. In my experience, this was a lot easier than the online exam, but each person will have a different opinion. Each flight reviewer will have specifics on what they require from you for the flight review and they will communicate this to you before the test. For instance, I was not required to wear steel toed boots or bring orange cones to my flight review, but I know some other people who were required to do this. It all depends on the reviewer and the school. 

When scheduling a flight review, you must provide the school reviewer with the certificate of registration of your drone, a valid government issued ID with your name and date of birth and a copy of the results page from your advanced exam. 

The flight reviewer will test your knowledge based on things you also should have studied for in the online exam. You can find the knowledge requirements for the flight review here. They will also test your flying skills.

The most important advice I can give you for the flight review is to come overly prepared. Bring your flight charts, checklists, emergency procedures, any protective equipment, a radio if you have, etc. It’s better to show them you’ve done your homework even if you think it’s overboard. Of course, do this within reason and actually do your homework on what your reviewer expects and what you would need for a real world situation. Don’t show up with protective gear unrelated to flying drones, that will look worse.  

This review costs money and varies depending on the drone school you choose and if you fail and need to redo it.  I did mine for $275, but there are some cheaper options out there.

ROC-A Test #

ROC-A stands for Restricted Operator Certificate- Aeronautical. You need this in order to talk on any radio with aeronautical frequencies, so for instance, if you wanted to talk to air traffic control. 

This optional test that I keep talking about was actually required by my flight reviewer before I showed up for the in-person test. This is why it’s important to do your homework to know what your flight reviewer requires, but it will always benefit you to have your ROC-A certification and it may be one of those things, if not required for your flight review, will impress your flight reviewer and give you points with them if you passed this test already. 

This was probably the easiest test of all the tests required in this process- and I know, there’s a lot! 

The good news is, you can use this study guide. 

The bad news is, this costs money too. I did mine for $50, but it can range up to $100 depending on who you decide to take it with. 

You can use this tool to search for examiners throughout Canada. 

How much does it cost to get your Advanced Certificate? #

Throughout this article, I’ve mentioned many costs associated with the different steps here and there, but let’s break it down and give you a realistic idea of how much getting your advanced operations certificate will cost in total.

  • Registering your drone: $5
  • Study Resources options, including drone school: $0-$500
  • Online exam: $10
  • ROC-A: $0-$100
  • Flight Review: $200-300
  • Advanced Certificate Application: $25

The total can range anywhere from $240 to $940. Of course, you have to factor in the equipment needed for your flight review, which can also drive up your costs. You can’t expect that getting this sort of certificate should not come with an investment, because let’s face it, it adds up!

Documents for a legal flight after obtaining your Certification #

You finally have your advanced drone certificate and now you want to go fly your drone. To make sure you comply with Canadian Law, or CARS, these are the documents you need to have on you for each and every flight from now on:

  1. Your drone pilot certificate (Now that you got it, flaunt it!)
  2. Recency requirement (only needed if you’ve had your drone pilot certificate for 2 years+)
  3. Flight log/ Maintenance log
  4. Drone registration certificate (along with your marked drone)
  5. Drone manufacturer’s user manual 
  6. Any checklists you use (pre-flight, site survey, take-off, landing, etc.)
  7. Emergency contacts (including the contact information of the nearest airports in the event of a fly-away)

Keep in mind, having these on you digitally works as well, you just need to be able to access it if asked. If you have insurance, you might want to keep those documents accessible as well.

What happens if you break the rules? #

If, after reading this, you’re thinking this is overwhelming, that Transport Canada requires too much of me to just fly my drone, I’m just going to go fly it without all this, then you might want to hear what will happen if you don’t abide by these rules. 

If you thought getting your advanced certificate is expensive, it doesn’t even come close to how expensive it is to fly illegally. Say you’re an individual flying without a pilot certificate, an unmarked or unregistered drone or you fly in a location where you are not allowed to, you can be fined $1,000 for each of these infractions, so let’s hope you don’t have all three. 

Oh, and if you fly in a way that endangers other people or aircraft, they’ll hit you with a $3,000 fine. You are also risking jail time if you endanger others or break the law, so it’s definitely not worth it to fly illegally. 

For corporations, the fines are even worse, so it’s really smart to do it the legal way if you plan on flying a drone under your corporation. A corporation breaking the rules mentioned above can be fined up to $5,000 for each infraction and $15,000 for endangering aircraft or people. Yikes!

In the end, flying your drone legally in Canada is an amazing experience with so much beauty to capture. The opportunities are endless if you don’t ruin the fun for everyone else. So please, drone responsibly.

Photo by Árpád Czapp on Unsplash


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