March 5, 2021

Drone flights in Canada soar in spite of COVID-19

Despite the majority of the aviation industry continuing to feel the impacts of COVID-19, a growing number of drone pilots and operators are taking to the skies in Canada. From June to December 2020, NAV CANADA received nearly 16,000 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) flight authorization requests, a 54 per cent increase over the same period in 2019.

This represents a small fraction of Canada’s drone traffic, as NAV CANADA only reviews requests from drone pilots and operators who wish to fly in airspace where the company provides air traffic services, also known as controlled airspace. These flight authorization requests are reviewed to ensure the safety of every aircraft sharing Canada’s airspace.

Drone photo of Calgary, Alberta

Panoramic photo of Calgary, Alberta captured by videographer and drone pilot Eric González in April 2020.

“Many drone pilots and operators work in industries that haven’t slowed down during the pandemic,” says Alan Chapman, Director of RPAS Traffic Management at NAV CANADA. “Everyone from aerial real estate photographers, first responders, journalists, drone hobbyists and professionals in many other industries rely on NAV CANADA to ensure they are able to safely operate their drones away from other aircraft flying in Canada’s skies.”

Chapman also credits drone pilots and operators’ growing awareness of Transport Canada’s RPAS rules and regulations for the increase in RPAS flight authorization requests. Transport Canada’s RPAS regulations came into effect on June 1, 2019 and apply to everyone who pilots and operates drones in Canada.

Cleared for takeoff

Eric González, a Transport Canada certified drone pilot and videographer based in Calgary, Alberta, captured some of his hometown’s stillness towards the beginning of the pandemic with his DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone. In a video he titled Voicemail 2020: A visual love letter to Calgary, González shared footage filmed at some of Cowtown’s most iconic locations.

González says at the beginning of the pandemic, as lockdowns were happening across the country, the places we call home began to look very different. “Our entire way of life changed in a matter of weeks,” González explains, “with all these empty businesses and streets, I came up with the idea for a visual voicemail for all those who stepped away from their daily routine. The video is meant to be a message of hope and reassurance.”

To ensure he was able to capture video footage safely and legally, González obtained permission from private property owners to fly his drone over their land. He then submitted RPAS Flight Authorization Requests to NAV CANADA and discussed the details of his proposed flights with his local NAV CANADA RPAS coordination office.

“The RPAS coordination office helped me time my flights to capture epic sunsets,” adds González. “Without the use of the drone and its ability to get unique angles, the video would not have had the same impact.”

This past summer in Montreal, Quebec, Radio-Canada drone videographer Vianney Leudière captured footage of a humpback whale swimming in the St. Lawrence River in front of Montreal’s Old Port.

A Radio-Canada newsroom editor received a tip that a whale was swimming close to the Old Port and asked Leudière to try to document the unique event. Unfortunately, high winds and rain made him doubtful he would be able to film the whale’s visit, so he checked the weather forecast and decided to return to the river later that evening when the rain and wind was expected to stop.

After dinner with his family, Leudière went to the river with his children and spouse by his side to help him search for the whale. And sure enough, as the rain clouds blew away, the whale emerged from the water to perform for Leudière, his family and a small group of onlookers.

“The whale gave us an amazing show,” says Leudière. “My family stood petrified in admiration, eyes sparkling, as we watched the whale emerge from the water.”

Leudière says he used a micro drone, weighing less than 250 grams, to capture the footage. “The hardest part was trying to figure out where the whale was going to emerge from the water,” adds Leudière. “For a few moments, happiness from this rare sighting eclipsed the weight we were feeling from pandemic.”


In June 2020, researchers at the Ward of the 21st Century, University of Calgary (U of C), Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Alberta Health Services (AHS), Provincial Laboratory for Public Health (ProvLab) and the Stoney Nakoda Nation partnered to assess the effectiveness of delivering personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests and other medical supplies to remote communities with drones.

“One of our goals with this project is to develop a comprehensive set of standard operating procedures, so this delivery system can be used safely around the world,” says Wade Hawkins, principal investigator at SAIT’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems. “We hope to create a scalable fleet of drones that includes everything from small remotely piloted aircraft that can carry light payloads a few kilometers to larger fixed wing aircraft that can travel up to 800 kilometers and potentially drop supplies by parachute.”

The pilot project has already caught the attention of the World Health Organization, who is exploring the possibility of using drones to assist with the fight against COVID-19 in remote parts of Africa.

“Some of the communities involved with our study are very secluded and are only accessible by 4×4 vehicles,” adds Hawkins. “In addition to delivering potentially life-saving medical supplies, we hope to change people’s perceptions of being isolated.”

Preparing for growing demand

In anticipation of the continued growth in drone traffic in Canada, in spring 2021, NAV CANADA will release NAV Drone, NAV CANADA’s official drone fight authorization application. Available on desktop and mobile devices, NAV Drone will help equip drone pilots and operators with tools they need to safely operate their drones in Canadian airspace.

Pilots and operators will be able to plan and schedule drone flights, receive authorization responses from NAV CANADA, discover where they can and can’t fly and review important information about Canada’s airspace.

Currently, all drone flight authorization requests for flights in controlled airspace are approved manually by NAV CANADA employees and based on their complexity, can each take upwards of 48 hours to complete. With NAV Drone, NAV CANADA anticipates approximately 70 per cent of the requests will be approved automatically in the app, reducing the wait time for drone pilots and operators, and allowing NAV CANADA employees to focus on the increasing number of requests for access to fly in controlled airspaces that require detailed reviews.

“The drone flight authorization data tells a very fascinating story,” says Chapman. “The drone industry and demands on NAV CANADA’s services are evolving rapidly, so we’re innovating to meet the needs of drone pilots and operators today and well into the future.”

NAV Drone will be available on the Apple and Google Play app stores. A web version will be available on the NAV CANADA website.

Feature image: SAIT’s test flight team executes a successful flight at Stoney Nakoda Nations Morley reserve on June 25, 2020. Photos by Riley Brandt, photographer, University of Calgary.

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