Monitoring the Canadian UAV Frontier
By Paul Dixon
Nov. 18, 2013, Vancouver - Unmanned Systems Canada (USC) visited Vancouver November 12-14 for its annual unmanned systems conference, and once again, attendees were left with a sense of intrigue about what the future holds for the commercial and military landscape in this country.
By Paul Dixon
Eleven years ago if someone had told you that in only a few years you would be able to control an aircraft from your cellphone, you would have likely thought they were a crackpot. However, the growth of USC over that same period is ample demonstration of the difference between crackpot and visionary. The future is happening right now and USC has firmly established itself at the crossroads where end users, manufacturers, operators, regulators and educators come together under one banner.
The first day of this year’s conference brought representatives from the resource and utility sectors together to talk about their needs, both present and future, inviting unmanned aerial vehicle developers and operators to bring them solutions to today’s challenges. In many ways, it was a “how-to” analysis of the potential use of UAVs in current operations.
Take Vancouver-based Teck Resources for example. The company ships 25 million tonnes of coal from southeastern B.C. by rail to Vancouver from where it is shipped around the world. Four times a year, the coal piles at Neptune Terminals and Westshore Terminals in Port Metro Vancouver where it must be audited to enable the reconciliation of the amount of coal leaving the mines against that passing through the port. Today, the data is captured by fixed-wing flights, which cost between from $10,000 to $20,000 each time. But could it be done less expensively using a UAV? If a simple UAV could be used, perhaps in-house staff could undertake the flights instead of contracting a third-party supplier.
|Photo by Paul Dixon.
In another example, BC Hydro has 18,000 kilometres of transmission lines in the province and 2,200 steel towers. Inspections are required every three to five years of every part of the system. Helicopters are expensive and there is considerable danger involved with the nature of the job. How much of the inspection work could be done by a UAV rather than a helicopter?
UAVs could also be worthwhile in the forestry industry. There are real challenges in Canada with widespread insect damage to stocks and the impact of climate change. For 90 years, aviation has been the main tool for obtaining information for the planning phase in forestry. UAVS could be the perfect tool for acquiring timely, relevant, low-cost information in an environment that is changing more quickly than ever before.
There are also hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipelines and underground utilities crisscrossing North America – all requiring frequent inspection. Why not consider using UAVs? The message was clear from all the industry speakers, however, that before UAVs can become useful tools, more information, higher quality information, must be delivered in a more timely fashion. We don’t need more expensive solutions, we need something that works.
Canadian Forces personnel were front and center at the event, providing a morning session on the use of UAVs to date – army, navy and air force. Topics of interest included lessons learned from the missions in support of operations in Afghanistan and Libya and where we are headed in the future. UAVs will play a significant role in all three branches of the military, but unlike many other countries, Canada’s UAVs will be required to operate in a wide range of environments, from the tropics to the high arctic while supporting the missions of all three services. Command and control systems will need to be common across all three services so the same platform can provide mission support in any military environment.
Unmanned Systems Canada also sponsors an annual student competition, which has grown from three teams in the first year to 14 teams that will compete in Southport, Man. in May 2014. USC further supports students in related fields by sponsoring an annual competition where students vie for the opportunity to present at the conference. This year, three PhD students were selected to make full presentations at the event, an experience that gave them invaluable exposure to the professional community and at the same time enabled them to gain a better understanding of how their research fits in with the industry at large.