Transport Canada has lifted most airspace restrictions on unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) weighing less than 2kg (4.41lb) and under many certain circumstances for UAVs weighing up to 25kg.

The bold decision opens Canada’s airspace to commercial UAV operations at a time when the US Federal Aviation Administration continues to ban most commercial uses of UAVs.

In Canada, all UAV operators had been required to file requests for a special flight operations certificates (SFOCs). The requests had to be submitted 20 working days before the flight and detail the operator’s security and specific flight plans, including details of the altitudes, routes and boundaries of the operation.

The process had begun to overwhelm Transport Canada’s agents. On 30 October, the Canadian aircraft owners and pilots association (COPA) issued a press release noting that requests for UAV-based SFOCs had grown from only 66 in 2010 to 914 already in 2014.

As a result, Transport Canada has issued two exemptions applying to UAVs weighing less than 2kg and 25kg.

In the smallest weight category, operators are only required to notify Transport Canada of a planned operation and stay below 300ft above ground level, within line of site of the pilot and at least 5nm from an airport unless that airport approves the flight.

Between 2kg and 25kg, UAV operators must comply with an expanded set of 30 conditions or file a request for an SFOC.

UAV flights of aircraft weighing more than 25kg will continue to require specific approval by Transport Canada.

COPA raised several concerns about Transport Canada’s decision, which was announced on 6 November at an Unmanned Systems Canada event in Montreal.

“Uncertainties exist, for example, regarding how to ensure that UAVs will remain below 300ft or whether or not 5nm from aerodromes can legally apply to non-registered aerodromes when UAV operators may have no way of knowing the aerodromes exist,” COPA wrote in a dispatch to members. “And of course there will be rogue operators who either do not know or care about the restrictions or requirements that are applicable to UAV operations.”

Transport Canada will continue to punish violators of UAV regulations. Operating a UAV that does not meet the terms of the exemptions without an SFOC is subject to fines up to $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for companies. Failing to comply with SFOC requirements also can lead to fines up to $3,000 for individuals and $15,000 for businesses.

“For businesses, these changes will make it easier for their small UAVs to take flight sooner, while maintaining safety of those on the ground and in the skies,” says Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt.