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How average Canadians take to the sky with drones

Alexander Knight readies his drone by turning a switch on his remote control. The propellers make a loud humming noise as the drone takes off. He flies it higher and higher until it’s a small black dot against a blue sky.

“You just need to be able to see it,” he says, pointing at the horizon.

Knight, a self-styled citizen journalist, drives around Toronto documenting what he might deem as environmental hazards. He then blogs his experiences at alexanderknight.ca. It’s a hobby for him. He makes no income off it.

Today, he’s observing the cleanup of what he says is contamination from a rezoned industrial plant — and is happy to find, during the 15-minute flight, that the cleanup is finished.

With drones coming in at cheaper prices, it’s now easier than ever to acquire and fly one. On Amazon, a Phantom DJI quadcopter with a GO PRO camera costs around $1,000, and the Parrot AR drones start at around $500 and can go up to $900. On the lower end, Hubsan models cost around $100 to $200, though their camera capabilities are more limited.

The price, along with increasing cultural acceptance, has led to a new pastime of hobby droning. Aerial photography and videography are popular choices, as Twitter and Instagram will attest. #Droneselfies is devoted to aerial images of people taken from up above. Even Martha Stewart is a fan.

The trend has left Transport Canada scrambling to rein in hobbyists who stray too far. The most pressing concern for the agency has been daredevil flyers operating too close to airports, which can interfere with commercial airline planes. Transport Canada’s new rules limit this, as hobbyists can no longer fly closer than nine kilometres from any airport, heliport or aerodrome.

Knight says he hasn’t had issues with Transport Canada but he worries that may change as regulations try to keep up with the advancing technology.

Patrick Dinnen however has had to rein in his photographic pursuits. The “creative technologist” based in Toronto had been experimenting with lightwriting — the photographing of trails of light through long exposure settings — when he bought a Phantom DJI drone.

One night he and two friends, Brent Marshall and Dré Labre, attached custom LED lights to the drone and flew it over various Toronto parks, turning on the camera and capturing its flight path, exposing trails of ethereal light and colour. They dubbed the paintings Weird Illuminated Sky Paintings (WISPs).

 Weird Illuminated Sky Paintings (WISPs) were created with a drone and LEDs.

Weird Illuminated Sky Paintings (WISPs) were created with a drone and LEDs.

“What we did with WISP is not really open to us anymore,” Dinnen says, as Transport Canada no longer allows nighttime flying for hobbyists.

But for some enthusiasts, the appeal is the drone itself, as many have taken to making their own.

Knight orders the parts for his drones online through websites such as eBay. And there are resources among the hobbyist community to help those who need it.

DYIdrones.com, a U.S.-based website devoted to connecting drone fans with peers, functions as a social network for hobbyists and amateur enthusiasts.

The site’s goal is to make drone development easier and cheaper for everyone while educating people on the technology. Discussions on the site can feature anything from where to buy certain parts to how to assemble a drone.

The cost of making a drone is usually lower than buying an off-the-shelf product, and assembly doesn’t require advanced knowledge of mechanics or robotics.

Some Canadian retailers have popped up and begun offering drone parts for hobbyists. Canada Drones, founded four years ago by Dany Thivierge in Mississauga, Ont., started out with the online community at DIYdrones.com. Thivierge realized there was a real need to supply parts to his “fellow geeks.” Today, Thivierge counts almost 4,000 customers.

“The growth is what surprised me the most,” he says, adding that his sales are well over the million-dollar goal that many businesspeople have when first starting out.

Thivierge is optimistic for future sales in the summer, hinting at some “exciting products” on the way.

“People keep surprising me with never-before-imagined applications for this technology,” he says.

What you should know before you buy a drone

 Metro's Ira Lamcja snaps a selfie via her office drone.

Metro's Ira Lamcja snaps a selfie via her office drone.

1. Remote: Works on most devices

Flying the Parrot AR drone is serious business. I used an iPad most of the time as a remote control but you can also use an iPhone as well as an Android phone or tablet.

2 Camera: Decent, by 2000s standards

The image quality on the camera attached to this drone is surprisingly good. A great deal of detail is captured, and although there is pixelation when the images are enlarged, the photos are still clear, resembling cellphone images from the early 2000s.

3. Handling: Beware of tight spaces

With time, practice and many crash scenes, piloting becomes easier and more instinctive. The Parrot’s Styrofoam protection makes it ideal for flying indoors, but beware of flying in small or tight spaces. While the flip function is available, allowing the drone to somersault in the air, I don’t recommend it indoors. I tried it once and took out the light in my living room. The Parrot survived.

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