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Canadian technology shapes future path of UAVs

April 9, 2014, Waterloo, Ont. - When Libyan rebels marched on Tripoli in 2011, a Canadian drone led the way. The unmanned aircraft, a product of a company called Aeryon Labs based in Waterloo, Ont., sliced slowly over the landscape, mapping the terrain and sending valuable tactical information to the soldiers.


April 9, 2014
By The Globe and Mail

Six months later, a similar scene played out in perhaps the polar
opposite setting, as an Aeryon craft hummed across the Bering Sea,
relaying ice conditions ahead of a Russian tanker dispatched to deliver
vital fuel to the town of Nome, Alaska, which had been caught off guard
by an early winter.

Quietly – and overshadowed by the technology’s much more
well-documented and controversial military uses – the commercial drone
industry is booming. Across the globe, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
are being used for real-time mapping, crop monitoring and in myriad
other capacities. And as American regulators struggle to come up with a
rulebook for the fast-moving industry, Canada has emerged as perhaps the
centre of commercial drone technology – from Ontario farmlands to
Alberta’s oil sands.

 

“We’re in that really interesting time where
this is pivoting to the mainstream market,” says Ian McDonald,
vice-president of product and marketing at Aeryon Labs. “The uses are
extremely broad.”

 

In December of last year, online retailing giant Amazon.com Inc.
gave the commercial drone industry a marketing push, announcing it aims
to one day deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes using unmanned
aircraft. But the announcement – timed to make a media splash around the
busiest shopping period of the year – is somewhat premature, given that
the company won’t be able to legally fly such drones until 2015 at the
earliest.

 

A regulatory quirk has given the Canadian consumer drone industry a multi-year head start on its American counterpart.

 

In
the United States, unmanned craft can only be used in a non-commercial
capacity – for example, by law enforcement agencies, search and rescue
teams and border patrol agents. And although some people may regularly
flout that restriction, civilian drone usage is unlikely to become a
widespread phenomenon in the U.S. for another half-decade, well after
the Federal Aviation Administration produce guidelines for commercial
unmanned aircraft.

 

“Four to five years is not a bad estimate,”
says Mike Winn, co-founder of San Francisco startup DroneDeploy, which
builds software and hardware for managing multiple drones. “It’s not
just tech challenges to overcome, there are also regulatory hurdles.”

 

In
Canada, such regulation already exists. Any person or company looking
to operate UAVs for commercial purposes can do so by filling out a
Special Flight Operations Certificate. The program, run by Transport
Canada, requires operators to list the times, dates and areas in which
their drones will fly. It also contains rules relating to line-of-sight
and buffer distances over populated areas, among other safety
guidelines. Once Transport Canada approves an application, the drone is
clear to fly.

 

Canadian companies are starting to take advantage of
the country’s relative regulatory clarity. “There’s been a lot of stuff
going on relatively quietly up in Canada,” says Ernest Earon, CEO of
Precision Hawk, a Toronto-based company that designs drone-based data
collection and analysis tools. Many of the company’s customers are
Canadian farmers, who use the technology to check on the health of their
crops. Unmanned craft, he notes, can also be used to collect water
samples, monitor the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions in the far North
and check on the health of the boreal forest.

 

In the heart of
Canada’s oil industry, the UAVs are also taking flight. The Canadian
Energy Pipeline Association said some member companies have done limited
tests with drones. Royal Dutch Shell PLC has tested unmanned aircraft
for land surveying at its Jackpine and Muskeg River oil sands mines.
Syncrude Canada Ltd. has been using them for the past few years to map
reclaimed areas, looking at details such as shoreline vegetation growth.

 

Canadian
oil sands giant Cenovus Energy Inc. is working to build a fleet of
UAVs, beginning with one $30,000 SenseFly eBee model. Transport Canada
has just approved a flight and mapping program at three of its project
sites, and beginning this month the company expects to conduct drone
flights at least once a week. “The technology is at a stage where it’s
pretty easy to use, it’s pretty easy to fly and then we can process here
at our desktops and acquire a better result than what our traditional
methods are,” says Wade Ewen, a senior adviser for the company’s
geographic information systems group.

 

One of the main hurdles for
drone use is what happens when they travel out of eyesight, and how
operators ensure they don’t run into other aircraft. Right now Canadian
regulations don’t allow drones to fly out of view. Sterling Cripps of
the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems in Medicine Hat, Alta.,
says along with the further development of “sense and avoid”
technology, progress in the regulatory framework is key.

 

The
southern Alberta centre was created with provincial and federal funding,
and grew out of a cluster of UAVs for military use at nearby Canadian
Forces Base Suffield. But the centre is now self-sustaining, with
revenues from training courses, helping companies with UAV paperwork and
renting out its $900,000 catapult for drone-launching.

 

The main
question for Mr. Cripps is how to make Canadian airspace safe with
unmanned vehicles in the mix. For the past six years, he has been
working to get Transport Canada’s approval to create the country’s first
restricted airspace area – near Foremost, Alta. – for testing
commercial drones out of eyesight.

 

“The bottom line,” he says, “is
the technology exists for UAVs to do an incredible amount of work that
it is not being done at the moment.”