Drones and Construction: Maximizing the benefits while minimizing the risk

Images courtesy PJ Materials Consultants Ltd.

By Paul Jeffs
The use of remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, has increased dramatically over the last few years—mainly due to improvements in flight and camera technology and decreased purchase prices. In the construction industry, drones are being used for everything from site surveying and planning to getting real-time data of project progress to inspections and monitoring. Further, their data can be used to create digital models or site plans.

The rapid growth in the use of drones has not been without some reported horror stories in the media, such as the recent incident when two CF-18 fighter jets were scrambled into the skies after a large drone was sighted flying near commercial planes over Ottawa. The sometimes-bizarre videos posted on YouTube and other websites also confirm the wide and varied use of the technology and the risks often taken to obtain dramatic or unusual videos and photographs.

In view of the controversial publicity, it may seem incredible that drones are still often used illegally for commercial operations. Certainly, there continues to be a lack of knowledge within the general public regarding what constitutes their legal use and what responsibilities the owners have when operating drones.

Legal responsibilities
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) department of Transport Canada (TC) requires the use of drones for commercial purposes—defined as “work or research”—be authorized by a specifically issued Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), which must be valid for each flight or series of flights. During use of a drone, the operator is required to carry a valid SFOC for inspection by any appropriate authority when requested. It is a legal requirement that an SFOC be applied for by a proposed operator before a drone is used for anything but recreational use.


The certificate should be valid for a specified use within a specified region of Canada, for a described period. Typically, the SFOC will impose a considerable number of restrictions and considerations, such as:

  • the drone not being flown over crowds, built-up areas, or close to airfields;
  • flying the drone only during daylight hours, within visual line-of-sight, and certain maximum altitudes and distances from people and property;
  • co-ordination with air traffic services; and
  • permission from the property owner to take-off and land the drone.

The proposed operator also has to detail within their SFOC application how they intend to deal with security and safety risks during the use of the drone, together with the contingency plans in the event of an emergency. Pilot and operator experiences and expertise must also be detailed.

Transport Canada is currently exploring changes to its regulatory framework, including new flight rules, aircraft marking and registration requirements, knowledge testing, minimum age limits, and pilot permits for certain applications. It is anticipated any new proposed changes will be announced later this year within the Canada Gazette, at which time comments from the Canadian public can be made.

If an incident is reported to Transport Canada, one of its civil aviation inspectors will investigate the following criteria:

  • whether an SFOC was issued;
  • whether or not the operator followed the laws and regulations; and,
  • whether or not safety guidelines were observed.

Transport Canada has advised that local police may also become involved if other laws are broken, including the Criminal Code and privacy laws. If an operator flies a drone without an SFOC when one is required, Transport Canada can issue fines up to $5000 for an individual and up to $25,000 for a corporation. If an operator does not follow the SFOC requirements, Transport Canada can issue fines up to $3000 for an individual and up to $15,000 for a corporation.

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  1. Great article. I’m working with a contractor who sent me videos of the construction progress while I was travelling and could not visit the site. The imagery was a fantastic supplement to my own on site General Review.

    Gerry Conway OAA, FRAIC
    Ottawa, ON

  2. Some of our customers use drones to photograph fields or land for drainage or ground works, take a reference measurement on site and when they get back to the office, calculate the measurements and dimensions from the photos saved as a pdf.

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