This Picture Almost Cost Me $15,000
· 15 min. read
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When I first saw a picture of Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, I did not believe it was in Canada. The blue stained glass was phenomenal, the dark wood was haunting and the towering dome was mesmerizing. I would say it took less than 24 hours to book a flight to Montreal to see it. I also booked a train to Quebec City and explored that amazing city too. My mind was opened during that trip to Quebec, and my understanding of Quebeious culture and appreciation of French-Canadian heritage changed forever.
I had the pleasure of visiting Quebec City again, albeit briefly, when I took part in the Cross-Canada Series with Ford many years ago. I was excited to see it again, but I didn't spend nearly enough time there -- and unfortunately, Montreal wasn't on the list.
These days, I'm working remotely for a company in Montreal, and they decided to fly all their employees in for a Christmas party. It was the first Christmas party I have had with physical coworkers since 2019, when I went to Calgary. It was great to see people outside of the screen, to laugh, to eat good food, and to explore Old Montreal, errm, sorry, Vieux-Montréal once more.
I was also excited to fly my drone around the area. Vieux-Montréal is over 380 years old, so the architecture is amazing. The streets are lined with shops, there are bicycle lanes and pedestrian shops everywhere, a thousand spires around the city, and of course, the mighty and beautiful St. Lawrence River. It had a lot of diverse landscapes for me to explore, and plenty of dynamic colours, even with the recent snowfall they got.
I decided to fly my drone near The Bonsecours Market, an indoor market built between 1844-1847. It's amazing to think this building stood even before Canada was a country! But, that's Vieux-Montréal for you -- almost everything stood before Canada was a country.
My copilot for the day was my boss Will, and I was very thankful he was there. According to the timestamps on my photos, it took exactly five minutes from take-off to when a police cruiser pulled up next to us. The officers spoke to Will, and although I'm not sure exactly what was said, I got the message: no drones allowed.
Will told me later that, according to the officers, I needed permission from Transport Canada to fly my drone in Montreal. Thankfully, they just took Will's name (sorry Will!) and gave us a warning.
But that didn't sit right with me. First off, had I not been allowed to fly in Montreal, my drone would have told me. More than once I was too close to an airspace (they are, actually, much larger than you'd expect) and my drone wouldn't go more than ten feet into the air. Other times it's limited to thirty. This time, after a brief pause of updating its GPS to figure out where I was, it let me go 120 feet up without a problem. DJI is very serious about these flight restrictions. They have frequent updates to their GPS database to enforce this, and the drone will not fly in certain areas at all. Just to make sure, the night before I even updated my drone's records, just to confirm my clearance.
I also visited Transport Canada's interactive drone map. This map is great, as it's owned by the federal government and is always up-to-date. It also has two "layers". The first one is the one everybody sees and is the flying area for drones, with a weight higher than or equal to 250g. This covers most recreational drones and is probably what the Montreal police were aware of. Recreational drones, which are larger than or equal to 250g, are banned from flying in city limits nationwide. However, DJI knows this, and they sell drones at 249g. These "microdrones" are made specifically to get around this legislation. This isn't a sneaky, covert thing either. Transport Canada knows they exist and deems them a non-threat when flown responsibly. Sure, you can fly this soup-can-sized robot into something going 40 kilometers an hour, but it's not going to do much damage by itself. If you decided to strap a bomb to it, you're over the 250g limit and breaking several laws -- of which the drone size regulations are the least of your worries.
A few years ago I had a similar incident to the one I had in Montreal, but I had it in Regina. I knew my 255g drone was too big to fly in the city, so I bought a 249g drone. Because it was less than 250g, it didn't have to be registered with Transport Canada. I flew it around the city, took some photos, and posted them on Instagram. Somebody (I know who, but we won't name names) saw it, made a fuss in the comments, and contacted Transport Canada. They looked me up, saw I was licensed, and saw my registered drone was too big to fly in the city. They called me up to see what was going on and learned I had a smaller, unregistered drone. They made a note in my file that I had a smaller drone that I could fly in city limits, and I was good to go.
So, once I got back to my hotel room that night, the very first thing I did was reach out to Transport Canada. I wanted to know what I had done wrong. My drone was within the weight limit, both maps said I was clear to fly, and I was flying responsibly. I wondered if it was a municipal bylaw, but the officers said I needed Transport Canada clearance, not city clearance.
Transport Canada got back to me in three days. They said I was fine to fly there, and as long as I was following the regulations (not over crowds, not intoxicated, not recklessly, etc, etc) then I was fine. If not, I was eligible for a $5,000 to $15,000 fine, depending on the severity of what I was doing. But, in this case, with the information I provided them, I was fine. Their paraphrased words were as follows:
"Hello Mr. de Jong
Thanks for your question.
A drone of less than 250 g doesn’t need to be registered, have an airspace authorization or hold and RPA pilot certificate.
It always needs to be flown safely as per CAR 900.06
Reckless or Negligent Operation
900.06 No person shall operate a remotely piloted aircraft system in such a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger aviation safety or the safety of any person.
I was not on site, can’t comment on if it was used safely in this usually crowded popular location for tourists.
Have in mind that other regulation may apply to drone, like the privacy law or a city or province’s trespass act.
Here is more information on the use of micro drone from the TC Aeronautical Information Manual – RPA chapter: https://www.tc.gc.ca/en/services/aviation/publications/tc-aim.html
For more information on small RPA (250 g and above) operations:
- TC AIM – RPA chapter: https://www.tc.gc.ca/en/services/aviation/publications/tc-aim.html
- Visit CARs Part IX: https://tc.canada.ca/en/corporate-services/acts-regulations/list-regulations/canadian-aviation-regulations-sor-96-433#part-ix
- Visit the TC drone safety Web site: https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/drone-safety
- Download the RPAS 101 Manual who provides general knowledge to Canadian RPA pilots: https://www.aerialevolution.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Nov-27-RPAS-101_EN-Final.pdf
- Visit the NRC Drone Site Selection Tool https://cnrc.canada.ca/en/drone-tool/ and NAV Drone viewer https://map.navdrone.ca/"
So, I reached out to the Montreal police for clarification. I gave them the date, time, and location of the incident, and asked if they could look into it and offer some clarity -- and, or, to clear poor Will's name, as this was the first time I met him, and I got a black mark on his police record. Not a good first impression with your new boss!
Not surprisingly, the police didn't get back to me. A non-French-speaking, Saskatchewan tourist flying a probably perfectly legal drone for five minutes is not at the top of their priority list.
So, I reached out to the City of Montreal for clarification on any bylaws that I broke. Still, no response. I didn't expect there to be, but I had some hopes.
Why would the police approach us to take down the drone then? Well, it could have been a misunderstanding of the law. It's happened before, where somebody didn't know that not all drones are the same, and some don't fall under Transport Canada's jurisdiction. I couldn't explain to them the difference because of the language barrier, and honestly, it probably would have caused more harm than good. I am thankful Will was there to help me out, but he said it probably wouldn't have gone so smoothly had I been by my Anglophone self.
Because I am all about ulterior motives and conspiracy theories, I have another thought about what happened that day. The Bonsecours Market is not that far away from Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. It's a nine-minute walk -- or a one-minute flight. On our way to The Bonsecours Market, we passed the Basilica and joked about the various black security vehicles parked outside it. There was some kind of high-profile wedding happening that day. Who it was, I have no idea, but security was tight.
I think the police knew what was happening at the Basilica, and were on high alert. My drone was either picked up by them, or by a spotter, and was called in. I can't see any other way my smaller-than-a-soup-can-sized drone was seen, called in, and the police showed up in less than five minutes. I think they had some eyes on the skies that day because of what was happening at the Basilica -- and maybe that's why my emails have gone unanswered. It's on a need-to-know basis, and an amateur drone pilot from Saskatchewan who wants to take pictures of old buildings didn't make the list.
However, I think this was a good learning opportunity. On one hand, is that it's very important to do your research, especially when it comes to federal transportation regulations. Authorities do not take it lightly and are quick to shut things down. Second, there needs to be more education done by both citizens and police on drone regulations in Canada. Like it or not, drones, or microdrones, will be in our skies for a long time, so we need to know what's worth a hobby and what's an actual security concern.
If I ever hear back from the Montreal police or the City of Montreal, I will post an update here. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on the whole situation. I'd love to hear it!
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Categories: Canada, Quebec