The presence of UAVs in all industries is growing every day. Imagine a remotely piloted vehicle with a thermal camera, which could autonomously follow the edge of a forest fire to track its progress. Or a small quad-rotor with cameras and sensors which could be used to safely inspect a bridge or building exterior while the operator stays safely on the ground. Amazon drone delivery gets a lot of headlines, but the applications of UAVs go far beyond getting your new phone case delivered on time. For these technologies to come to reality commercial operators need licenses and exceptions to existing rules in order to perform R&D, and this is where many of them hit a hurdle: the FAA has been slow to give out exceptions, when it gives any at all. For many companies, the solution has been simple, they come to Canada.
The rules governing flight and certification of UAVs are created by regional transport authorities such as the FAA in the United States, Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA) in Canada and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for most of Europe. All of these authorities are trying to keep up with an industry that is innovating faster than regulations can keep up. The FAA released their proposed rules governing commercial use of UAVs, but they will not take effect until sometime in 2017. In the meantime, companies must apply for special exceptions if they want to run research and development programs where actual flight takes place. The FAAs rules are especially strict about line of sight and autonomy.
To use UAVs for commercial purposes in Canada or the US the governing aviation authority must grant a certificate. In 2015 Transport Canada released 1,672 Commercial Drone certificates, while the FAA had released only 48 in the same time frame. The FAA is taking a very conservative approach to automation as well. Within the FAA regulations, even autonomous vehicles have to be within line-of-sight of an operator at all times, negating the practical benefits of autonomous flight. For Amazon, this makes their vision for drone delivery impossible. Canada meanwhile has allowed Amazon to test their system at an undisclosed site in British Columbia. And not only that, Canada also has 2,400 square kilometers of dedicated airspace in Alberta for beyond visual line of sight flight. With this openness to innovation, it’s no wonder that companies are coming to Canada to work on cutting edge technologies and applications of UAVs.
There is a growing ecosystem of companies, universities, and business in the UAV space in Canada, and it goes beyond household names like Amazon. Here are some of the innovators making their mark on the UAV scene:
Sky-X, based near Toronto Ontario, is developing a cutting-edge UAV platform. Capable of long distance flight, and featuring weatherproofing and vertical take-off and landing, it is a perfect solution to automate remote activities like pipeline or power line inspections where long-distance and remote travel is required.
Waterloo-based Aeryon labs have even developed their own drone platform and a range of software products for a range of industries. Aeryon has powerful tools to simplify data collection and to do more with the images and information you can collect with unmanned systems. They recently created a 3D mapping of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro in collaboration with Pix4D and PUC – going well beyond the typical use of UAVs for aerial photography.
Pushing the boundaries of autonomy even further, Reforges is developing a platform that is almost entirely hands off. Permanently installed base stations would provide a weather-proof landing/takeoff zone with integrated charging. This will allow users with large, permanent facilities such as agriculture or solar farms to fly regular, pre-programmed routes. All of the data would be sent wirelessly. Apart from maintenance, the UAVs would fly themselves on a pre-determined schedule. With the high level of autonomy involved, companies like Reforges show the benefits to working in a country where innovation is encouraged by transport authorities.
At the University of Toronto, Dr. Hugh Liu recently received funding to train 150 graduate students in all aspects of unmanned flight. Much of this work will focus on advanced flight algorithms, bringing in a new generation of highly capable vehicles with features like collision avoidance, tracking, and navigation.
Supporting all of these initiatives, and many more in Canada are trade groups such as Unmanned Systems Canada (USC). These trade groups are critical in creating a strong ecosystem of companies. They represent the UAV industry in Canada and promote knowledge both within the industry and to the general public. With the laws and regulations regarding unmanned flight still being formed, it is more important than ever to have a unified voice to support a strong and innovative industry. This can be done only through partnership with the regulatory bodies.
Applications and Industries
The potential for unmanned vehicles grows constantly as performance, range, and the software and tools surrounding them improve. Already they are seeing use in the oil & gas industry for inspections, to view hydro lines, to capture pictures of automobile collisions for investigations, and in the defense sector. The entertainment and film industries are using unmanned aircraft as a regular part of filming. All of these commercial uses need a reasonable and fair set of regulations to allow companies to innovate and flourish. It seems that in the current day, the technology is advancing far faster than governments can keep up. While granting certificates for commercial drone use is a strong start, the questions about the safety of unmanned vehicles remain.
Regulations and Future Developments
The RTCA Drone Advisory Committee, working with the FAA, is set to release interim recommendations in May, and a final report in October on the regulation and certification of unmanned aircraft. What this means for Canada’s drone industry, and the industry as a whole is yet to be seen. We have already seen in the USA that stricter regulations simply push companies to work internationally. The potential cost savings and money to be made in this industry are high, and the desire to innovate is strong. However, in the aviation industry, it is difficult to get away from regulation. Canada may be a hot-spot for drone startups now, but those startups will become large businesses which may operate over densely populated areas and share airspace with manned craft. The industry will certainly change a great deal in the upcoming years. Stay tuned for the second part of this post that looks at the new rules we could be seeing for UAVs.