Victoria-based UAV maker eyes future growth
By The Victoria Times Colonist
Feb. 23, 2012, Victoria, B.C. - A Victoria company is hoping to turn its theoretical work into a business that could literally take off. Quaternion Aerospace, which is tucked into the industrial park just east of the Victoria International Airport, has been doing consulting and design work on unmanned aircraft for the U.S. Air Force but is starting to establish itself as a manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles and flight systems.
By The Victoria Times Colonist
"We are seeing if we can manoeuvre and establish a viable business model [because] we see plenty of applications for it," said vice-president of research and development Afzal Suleman, who is also a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Victoria.
Suleman, who had established contacts with the U.S. Air Force 20 years ago as a visiting scientist, started the company in 2007 to do consulting and testing, and landed a contract to evaluate a Boeing unmanned aircraft design.
The company is to submit conclusions on the design and factors like stress next spring. And while that project continues, they have other test contracts and have started to design and build a suite of products including unmanned aircraft, ground control and autopilot systems and telemetry software.
"We now have a total solution available," said Suleman.
Vice-president of operations Jenner Richards said at the moment the company builds prototypes of aircraft and related technology, but they have established partnerships that could allow it to ramp up to full production. "Our business strategy at the moment is the research projects. They keep us going, but we are developing spin-offs like the autopilot system and other technologies," said Richards.
But the end goal is to produce aircraft with an eye on the commercial and civilian market.
"Once Transport Canada opens the air space, there could be a rush to fill demand for these, and when that happens we should be advanced enough to hit the ground running," he said.
But there is no date for that.
Suleman said NASA and the FAA are discussing how to open the skies to unmanned aircraft in the U.S., and he understands similar talks are being held in Canada.
"At the moment, the airspace is controlled by the military, but there are so many civilian applications," he said.
Suleman has been approached by companies in other countries about the possibility of using unmanned aircraft for scaring birds, surveillance and wildlife tracking.
But he is quick to note the applications could include search and rescue, whale monitoring to help locate ideal viewing areas and monitoring vast tracts of land – anything that would otherwise require an expensive manned aircraft.
"There is plenty of interest out there," he said, noting there are more unmanned than manned aircraft in the U.S. "And there is a chance for exponential growth."
The unmanned aircraft Quaternion works on – jetfuelled ones that can hit altitudes of 40,000 feet, and others, fuelled by gas, that can hit 10,000 feet – range in size from that of a flapping insect-like vehicle with a five-inch wingspan to Boeing's joined-wing aircraft, which has twin jet turbines and a wing span of more than 17 feet, and can reach speeds of up to 280 kilometres an hour.
The company also has a new system designed to carry stabilized cameras and sensors that can fly for more than 12 hours across a range of more than 1,000 kilometres.
The aircraft can fly autonomously but there are pilots stationed at a ground control set-up designed by Quaternion where two pilots monitor the craft's air speed, altitude and direction on two large screens. They can also take control of the craft at any time.