Future for unmanned aircraft could be almost limitless, experts say

Attendees at an unmanned aircraft conference in Edmonton this week are waiting for "the holy grail," the day Transport Canada changes the rules to allow them to fly much greater distances.

Drone conference in Edmonton this week showcases the latest technology

This large darge drone looks like a baby helicopter. (CBC)

Attendees at an unmanned aircraft conference in Edmonton this week are waiting for "the holy grail," the day Transport Canada changes the rules to allow them to fly much greater distances.

Right now, drone operators must maintain line of sight, which limits their aircraft for use in small geographical areas.

But those in the burgeoning industry are confident the federal government will eventually change those rules to allow for longer flights.

Once that happens, they say, the sky will literally be the limit when it comes to potential applications.
Mark Aruja is chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada. (CBC)

"The holy grail economically is going beyond visual line of sight," said Mark Aruja, chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada, the organization that hosted this week's conference at the Westin Hotel.

The conference showcases the latest and greatest technology in a field that started out as little more than an expensive hobby.

Today, remote control planes and helicopters that were once considered toys have evolved into sophisticated machines capable of flying great distances and performing a variety of tasks.

'How do we do a 1,000-km pipeline?'

They don't need humans at the controls, and the routes they take can be mapped out in advance using GPS technology.

"So today, sure we can take a look at a tailings pond, we can take a look at a cell tower perhaps," Aruja said. "But how do we do 1,000-kilometre of pipeline? And that was part of the discussions."

Aruja said expanding the length of flights would be a big step that would come with challenges.
One of the smaller drones on display at the conference. (CBC)

"We need to figure out how we are safe with the other existing users in the airspace, that we're able to deal with meteorological conditions, many, many other factors which make things more complex," he said. "We're building upon a strong body of experience we've really gained in the last five years."

Aruja thinks a change in rules would create countless opportunities in the field.

'The applications are endless'

"We can improve the monitoring of pipelines, hydro lines, railways, forests, environment, mineral exploration. The applications are endless."

Of particular interest to Alberta would be the ability to monitor wildfires and locate hot spots.

Aruja thinks it would also open the door for drone delivery, and not just pizza or beer.
Tony Mathews is production manager at Brican Flight Systems, a company that builds unmanned aircraft. (CBC)

"We have a Canadian company that is really looking at a delivery system in remote communities, things like medicine."

Tony Mathews is production manager at Brican Flight Systems, which builds unmanned aircraft designed for long journeys.

Their product looks like the typical remote control airplane often seen buzzing around local fields. But it's anything but typical.

"This is a fixed-wing aircraft designed to fly long duration or long distance," said Mathews. "Typically, anywhere from 10 to 20 hours duration, and it can carry a pretty heavy payload, up to 10 kilograms."

Drones already familiar in war zones

Most people are familiar with the use of military drones in war zones half a world away. But Mathews thinks drones could soon be patrolling Canada's borders.

Those thinking about getting into the business better be prepared for sky high prices.

While a basic toy quad-copter can be purchased for under $100, most professional machines start in the thousands. And Mathews fixed-wing aircraft will likely cost at least $1 million.

But Aruja thinks those considering careers as professional drone pilots should start with the toys.

This drone controller looks similar to a Nintendo Gamepad.

"My advice is go out there and get one of the recreational devices, and when you're doing that, learn how to do it safely while you're having fun. That's the number one message.

"What a wonderful opportunity to learn about all kinds of things, and at the end of the day you might get into the film business. This is just a tool to do something really neat."

Transport Canada requires people who use drones for work or research to have a Special Flights Operation Certificate. Aruja encourages people who are serious to look into training.

"We have a knowledge exam or knowledge requirements if you will, that we co-developed with Transport Canada, and it's extensive" said Aruja.

"And there are courses all over Canada, various schools that offer these things. Ad there are some introductory ones, the kind you can take over the internet that are short. They won't get you to the level of where you can fly professionally but they'll give you a sense of what this is all about. And those are inexpensive."

For now, those attending the conference are in a holding pattern as they wait for Transport Canada to change the rules. If and when that happens, they're hopeful interest, and sales, will skyrocket.

In an online document, Transport Canada said it has formed a working group to develop regulatory recommendations for beyond visual line-of-sight operations.