Drones: Dos and don'ts for safe and legal use

April 28, 2016 Kevin Grover

Keeping our communities safe, and our operations legal, on the wings of a rapidly growing technology.


So let’s talk about drones, shall we? Drones, UAV, UAS, RPAS, or a plastic bag—according to the latest drone spotting by a pilot at the London’s Heathrow Airport—regardless of what they are called, there are becoming much more prevalent all around us. They are so in your face now it hurts. As Stantec’s representative on the UAS Governance Committee, as well as running commercial UAS operations in Canada, it hurts me too since everyone wants one. They seem like toys in many cases, but in fact, there are strict rules for the legal use of them.

Stantec’s Geomatics team in Edmonton bought a first fixed-wing drone almost three years ago, and added a multirotor system just recently. We bought them specifically for survey and mapping purposes as it was the next new tool on the market, and we have always been early adopters of new technology. We have been working with a number of different groups across Stantec on other potential use cases including wildlife monitoring, bridge inspections, and detecting archaeological features. There are many opportunities for the technology in our industry, but it is also important for us to recognize that there is a lot of hype with the technology as well. In some cases, it’s an effective tool, but in others, it just isn’t practical—and a lot of it has to do with which side of the border you’re on.


The part that most people don’t realize with drones is there are strict rules in place in both Canada and the US regarding the commercial use of a UAS. There is a big difference between “Recreational Use” and “Commercial Use”. People think there is a fine line between the two, but there really isn’t. It is quite black and white. Commercial Use is when a drone collects data for project work, whether paid or not. It is that simple. If you use the data for design, as-builts, marketing, etc., it is considered Commercial Use, and needs to be collected according to legislation in both the US and Canada. This goes for both our own internal operations, as well as when hiring a sub-consultant.

So what does that mean for getting work done with a drone? Well, here’s the legal rundown. Canada splits the country into five regions for commercial permits, and a Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC) is required. Stantec currently holds permits in all regions across Canada with the exception of Quebec. We have worked very hard the last few years to obtain our SFOCs for these regions, which will allow others at Stantec to expand into this work if they require it.

In the US there is a similar process to operate legally, which is under a Section 333 Exemption. It is somewhat more onerous than in Canada, as there are many restrictions around commercial operations including the requirement to hold a Sport Pilots License in order to operate legally. These restrictions will hopefully be relaxed this year, but there are definitely restrictions around who can operate as well as where you can operate. As a result, we don’t currently have any internal UAS services in the US, but we are working to make that possible as regulations allow.

However, it’s important to us, as responsible members of our communities, that we ensure that safe and legal operations are followed with this technology. We are working on developing minimum standards for team members at Stantec to become operators. We realize that there is incredible value in the technology for many of our clients, but there is also a lot of risk to ensure we operate safely around the public and on our project sites, as well as ensure we deliver data products to high standards.

To continue supporting the responsible use of this technology, I am excited to be presenting on a panel at the AUVSI conference in New Orleans on May 3rd about “Drones in the Enterprise.” I’ll be sharing how we are working on streamlining data collection and processing to create cloud connected products, all while ensuring we are operating legally under our permits and insurance policies. Our most important goal is to protect the public in the communities we work in, while ensuring the people at Stantec are operating safely and legally as well.

About the Author

Kevin Grover

Kevin is Stantec’s UAS Operations Manager and in-house expert on the ever-changing regulations of this new technology, on both sides of the border.

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