News / Canada

Drones in 2015: No longer just pies in the sky

For part two on Metro's drone feature, tackling police use of drones in Canada click here.

Eight years ago, Dave Kroetsch couldn’t find a buyer for his drones.

The CEO and president of Waterloo, Ont.-based Aeryon Labs went door-to-door, pitching to police officers, power inspection companies, surveyors and more, but no one had any idea how drones could help their business.

“When we started this in 2007, no one even knew what a drone was,” Kroetsch says. Drones had been used by the military, he notes, and some universities were doing experiments with them, but the average person hadn’t heard of the new technology.

Fast forward to 2015, and drones are becoming an inevitable part of our lives. In recent years, as the technology has developed and prices dropped, drones have become far more commonplace and are as varied as the applications they’re used for: from toy drones for hobbyists to commercial drones used in farming.

Aeryon’s heavy-duty drones are now used for industrial use. They have military applications, such as tactical awareness and surveillance, but are also used in public-safety initiatives, such as fire management, crowd control and search-and-rescue missions; and large-scale commercial applications, including pipeline monitoring and precision agriculture.

A drone on a budget

Stewart Baillie, chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada (USC), anon-profit organization promoting the drone industry, says interest in drones has grown in the past decade partly due to increasing affordability.

Twelve years ago, when USC first started out, people were talking about drones for purely military purposes, Baillie says.

“The technology was very expensive and very difficult to use,” he says, noting the regulations at the time were also difficult to navigate.

Battery, camera and GPS technology, as well as the smartphone revolution, “have come together at a great time,” Kroetsch says.

A simple Phantom toy drone from DaJiang Innovations (DJI) costs around $1,000. A Parrot drone, used primarily for recreational purposes, retails for about half of that.

Transport Canada, the government agency tasked with promoting a secure transportation environment, is also helping commercial drones get in the air. To keep the skies safe, it’s working to ensure drone operators steer clear of commercial airplanes.

To this end, Transport Canada authorities have differentiated between model aircraft, which don’t need to be regulated, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or commercial drones. A model aircraft is characterized as being under 35 kilograms and used solely for hobby purposes, explains spokeswoman Roxane Marchand.

In order fly commercially, operators must apply for a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC), detailing their safety and security plans, and have their drone insured.

In 2010, Transport Canada established a UAV Working Group, which includes key members of the industry, to create a new regulatory framework to ensure drone operators are trained and that the drones meet safety standards.

In 2010, the agency issued just 66 SFOCs to individuals or businesses seeking to operate drones commercially. As of Sept. 15 of last year, Transport Canada had issued 1,020 such certificates.

Ideas no longer pies in the sky

When it comes to uses for commercial drones today, the sky is literally the limit.

Retail giants such as Amazon are seeking approval in the United States to initiate outdoor research into drone delivery systems.

Their program, titled Prime Air, has an ambitious goal: getting a package into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using drones.

“One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” Amazon touts on its website.

In Canada, businesses are getting just as creative:

McCain Foods has a drone equipped with cameras that capture a bird’s-eye view of their potato crops in New Brunswick. In a joint project with Resson Aerospace, McCain operates the drone above its fields, and Resson takes the data and analyzes it to improve efficiency and asses crop health. The 2014 season was their second using a drone.

In a recent Cirque du soleil performance entitled Sparked, a repairman’s lamps come to life and enter a majestic dance with him. The lamps are, in fact, computer-programmed drones. “We thought it was very interesting to divert this object and bring poetry, magic, whimsy to it,” said Welby Altidor, who was Cirque du soleil’s project lead in creating Sparked. But the real magic came from the drones’ computer programming, which synchronized all the movements, allowing for a fluid and harmonious flight.

Accuas Inc, a Salmon Arm, B.C., land-surveying company, was an early adopter, putting drones to use since 2007 to conduct aerial surveys and to map terrain. The company uses drones in a number of industries in which land surveying is necessary but difficult, including agriculture, oil-and-gas and waste management.

Kaspi Films, a small company based in the Greater Toronto Area, offers professional cinematography and photography services using drones.

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