Transport Minister Marc Garneau is cracking down on recreational drones with new safety restrictions to keep them nine kilometres from any airport and ban their owners from flying near people, buildings, at night and when first responders are at the scene of an emergency.
The rigorous rules that come into effect immediately also force recreational owners to clearly mark their drones with contact information. The federal government is promising even stricter regulations for all unmanned aircraft in June.
"I am taking measures now, before a drone hits an airplane and causes a catastrophic accident. That's the kind of nightmare scenario that keeps me up at night," Mr. Garneau said in prepared remarks, provided to The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Garneau, who will announce the new rules at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport on Thursday, has become concerned about the number of reported drone incidents, which have more than tripled from 41 when data collection began in 2014 to 148 last year.
"There have been several very worrying incidents in Canada involving near-collisions of drones and aircraft. We need to do everything in our power to stop this from happening," Mr. Garneau said. "When there is a significant risk to aviation, I have the power to issue an immediate measure until new regulations can be enacted. And that is what I have done."
Under the new rules, recreational drone operators must stay far away from controlled or restricted airspace, forest fires and first-responder emergency operation sites.
They also cannot fly higher than 90 metres; fly within 75 metres of buildings, vehicles or people; or fly within nine kilometres of any airport, heliport, seaplane base or airstrip where aircraft take off and land.
A senior Transport Canada official, who was involved in drafting the new rules, said there have been troubling incidents where people have flown drones over forest fires in British Columbia, forcing the grounding of water bombers. In other cases, seaplane and helicopter operations in Vancouver's Coal Harbour have been halted because of drones flying overhead.
"Of our top five airports [across Canada], we are seeing incidents where pilots are reporting seeing these drones 200 or 300 feet away as they approach the airport during one of the more critical points of the flight," the official said.
The new restrictions apply to anyone operating an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) weighting more than 250 grams and up to 35 kilograms. Any recreational operator who fails to comply with the new flying restrictions would face fines of up to $3,000.
The RCMP and police forces across the country will be working with Transport Canada inspectors to enforce the new measures.
Until now, the rules required recreational-drone owners to be able to see their aircraft at all times when the vehicles are in flight but there were few other restrictions, except that they were not permitted to fly into the clouds or in restricted air space such as airports. Unlike commercial users, recreational-drone flyers also do not need a certificate to operate their UAVs.
Anyone flying drones for commercial, academic or research purposes are not affected by the new measures. The military, law enforcement and businesses have increasingly been using drones but obtain special flight operating certificates. Energy companies, for example, use drones to inspect pipelines while farmers use them to monitor livestock.
"The government certainly doesn't want to restrict drones so much that we hinder innovation because it's so important to our economy and standard of living," Mr. Garneau said. "But, like any new technology, drones must be used with care. And we cannot wait until something bad happens before we act."
Mr. Garneau said Ottawa plans to propose new regulations that govern all unmanned aircraft in June. Those regulations will lay out rules of flight, knowledge testing, minimum age limits, pilot permits and how drones are to be marked and registered.
The department is considering an age restriction of 14 to operate a small drone and a minimum of 16 to fly a drone heavier than one kilogram. People may also have to pass an exam to fly drones for recreational purposes.