By Tom Collins
PEMBROKE — Pembroke-area farmer Darcy Smith often finds himself walking through the fields looking for problems with his crops.
The walk is also a stress release for Smith, a chance to get away for a little bit. But there’s only so much ground he can cover by walking. Drones can cover a much greater area in a short amount of time, but Smith isn’t sold on the technology. He’s been researching drones but he isn’t sure it would be worth the cost (a drone can range from $1,200 to $150,000, although the lower range would be suitable for most farming needs). Instead of buying one outright, he’s considering hiring someone with a drone so he can take a test drive.
“I don’t want to go and spend $2,500 on one and find out it’s not really that good of an image,” he said.
Smith isn’t alone in looking into drone technology. More and more farmers are intrigued by drones that can be equipped with scanners to get all sorts of information, from yield estimates to crop scouting.
A 2017 University of Guelph survey of 62 precision agriculture providers found that drones were used for 13.1 per cent of custom applied acres to asses fertility or pest levels, and 39 per cent of respondents offered drone imagery.
Drones are becoming so common that Transport Canada has come up with a new set of rules. That means more red tape but a clear set of rules for people to follow.
Transport Canada’s new rules come into effect on June 1 for drones that weigh between 250 grams (the weight of 10 granola bars) and 25 kilograms. Part of the new rules state that users now need to register their drone and pass a test before being allowed to fly.
Felix Weber of Ag Business and Crop Inc., who has been selling drones and training people how to use them since 2012, said the rules put everyone on the same page and help make flying a drone safer.
The new rules sort drone users into a basic or advanced category. You are a basic drone operator if you are in uncontrolled airspace (more than 100 feet horizontally away from other people and never over them). Many farmers would qualify as a basic operator, Weber said.
However, there are still fees to pay. All drones need to be registered with Transport Canada ($5 for both basic and advanced). If you fly an unregistered drone, you can be fined $1,000 for a person and $5,000 for a corporation.
Users also need to pass an online test. Basic drone users have 90 minutes to complete 35 multiple choice questions. A pass is 65 per cent. The cost is $10, but if you fail, you need to wait 24 hours before taking the test again (and pay an additional $10).
The advanced exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions. However, there are only 60 minutes to complete the test and a pass is 80 per cent. An advanced user also needs to complete a flight review from a drone flight school to get certified. The school sets the price. There are 19 drone flight schools in Ontario, including 5 in Eastern Ontario. (a full list can be found at Transport Canada’s web site).
Both Transport Canada and Weber recommend drone users take a course. A drone training school can be eight hours a day for four to five days and can cost around $800 from Aero-Photo.ca and run as high as $1,500-plus. The current rules state that drone users must have 20 hours of ground school and at least $100,000 of liability coverage, but those requirements disappear in June.
Some of the other rules — which include staying away from emergency operations, forest fires, parades, outdoor concerts, and 5.6 kilometres from airports and 1.9 kilometres from heliports — remain the same. Fines for breaking the rules range from a maximum of $3,000 for individuals to a maximum of $25,000 for a corporation.