What do drones deliver?

It’s not just Hellfire missiles. A host of business applications are already in flight in Canada and the rest of the developed world.

Last summer a strange bird flew over Bleuetière Des Blanc, a blueberry farm in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec’s largest wild blueberry-producing region. The bird-like object whirring and hovering over the farm was a drone brought in to snap aerial shots of the blueberry field. Located in L’Ascension-de-Notre-Seigneur, the farm was part of a research project led by Agrinova, an agriculture research and development centre affiliated with Alma College in Quebec, in collaboration with the drone’s operator, Hovercam-Media. The pictures were taken at four different stages of production: the bud stage, the pre- and post-blossoming stages and harvest time. “We took a lot of pictures to analyze the soil and crop yield,” explains François Tremblay, a biologist and research and innovation project manager at Agrinova. “With a drone, we get diagnostics without having to walk the fields.”

Once they are published in the spring, the research findings will certainly be of interest to the region’s producers, who supply more than 80% of Quebec’s wild blueberries. But other farming businesses across the country could also benefit from drones surveying their large crops and monitoring for frost and drought, for example. “Farmers already use satellite images to determine if their crops are healthy,” says Tremblay. “If drones can provide more accurate data, for less money, we’ll see more and more of them fly over fields.”

Equipped with sensors, infrared cameras and intelligence systems, drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — can also better target patches of soil requiring extra treatment or irrigation. And fertilizer could be spread using more powerful drones fitted with the necessary equipment. “There is huge growth potential, not only in the farming sector but in a host of other industries as well,” says Marc Moffatt, director general of the Unmanned Aerial System Centre of Excellence in Alma.

AN EXPLODING MARKET

Commercial drone use is quickly taking off in numerous sectors — from farming topography and building, energy line and railroad inspection to package delivery services. According to a recent study by Teal Group, a US aerospace and defence industry market analysis firm, the drone industry will skyrocket over the next decade, with worldwide annual production expected to soar from US$4 billion annually to US$14 billion, for a total of US$93 billion in the next 10 years. The study also reports that the market will be at 72% military, 23% consumer and 5% civil, with civil UAVs seeing the fastest growth during that period.

In a 2014 study, Unmanned Systems Canada (USC) estimated that the value of the Canadian drone market will range from $100 million to $260 million in procurements and operations over 10 years. “It’s an emerging industry with infinite commercial applications,” says Charles Vidal, who sits on USC’s board of directors. With more than 500 members, USC is an association dedicated to facilitating the growth and integration of the UAV industry into the Canadian economy.

The USC study shows that the number of Canadian companies using drones has more than tripled since 2008. Transport Canada, which is in charge of regulating commercial drone use (see “Not just anyone can fly a drone”), has seen a rise in applications for special flight operations certificates in recent years. In 2014, the department issued 1,672 certificates to drone pilots, compared with 945 in 2013 and 345 in 2012. That’s a jump of 485% in two years. The increase in UAV use spans a wide range of sectors, such as agricultural inspection, film production and law enforcement, which have been utilizing drones the most and the longest in Canada. Other areas, including meteorology, urban planning, public safety, building inspection and fire monitoring, also need greater access to air space — and changes in regulations — to help the drone industry expand. “The technology is changing faster than regulations,” says Robert Parker, a partner at the New York firm Risk Masters International Inc. and specialist in IT risk management, security and control.

Quebec’s forest fire protection agency, the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu, would like to use drones to take pictures to identify any hot spots left after forest fires. Drones could also be valuable in preventing and fighting forest fires. However, “regulations are too strict,” says Éloïse Richard, information officer at the agency. “The problem is that you have to apply for permits in advance, when we have to be able to act very quickly, day or night.”

Moffatt explains: “A drone can help detect budding fires caused by lightning, up to four days earlier.”

Michael Cohen, president of Industrial SkyWorks, an Ontario-based UAV solutions company, echoes these sentiments. “The regulation is lagging, often impeding drone use,” he says. Launched in 2013, the Toronto company deploys its six UAVs equipped with infrared and video cameras over buildings to inspect rooftops and building envelopes. The images and data collected are used to detect energy leaks, as well as moisture in insulation. “Drones eliminate the need for scaffolds and forklifts, or for technicians to go on rooftops at night to get infrared readings,” adds Cohen. “Now, a UAV operator can fly a drone from a building’s parking lot. It’s cheaper and safer.”

Quebec startup Elipto also offers UAV imaging solutions for building inspections. “Demand is growing,” says Benjamin Jébrak, CEO of the Montreal-based company, founded barely two years ago. Elipto operates about a dozen drone models and provides services to architects, land surveyors, housing managers and insurance companies. Building inspections currently account for 50% of its revenue. “We’re also working on projects in the energy sector, including wind turbine inspections,” says Jébrak, adding that there is still some mistrust over UAV use, especially in urban areas.

Another new player in the drone industry is Quebec-based TerraScan 3D. The company offers mine, quarry and sandpit surveying services, using UAVs to capture images for 3-D site mapping. The data collected is used to plan drill work, take inventories or map out escape routes. “It’s much faster and safer. Surveyors no longer have to walk around with a GPS or scanner. They’re also less exposed to potential rockslides or heavy-equipment accidents,” says Michel Drolet, who cofounded the company in 2012.

 “Drones could take over part of the market segments currently serviced by satellites, airplanes, helicopters and, eventually, package delivery service providers,” Parker says. In Japan, construction giant Komatsu uses the tiny aircraft for 3-D mapping and construction site analysis. Despite the boom in the commercial drone market, UAV use is just getting off the ground in Canada. “More needs to be done to convince Canadian companies that UAVs are worth a look,” notes Moffatt, whose centre has been working since 2011 on developing expertise and a range of services in the drone industry.

“Many companies are still analyzing the possibilities that UAVs have to offer,” Vidal adds. For example, Gaz Métro, Quebec’s main natural gas distributor, has no immediate plans to adopt drone technology to monitor its main lines. “Nothing is in the works for the time being. We’re monitoring developments in the technology,” says spokesperson Bernard More, adding that the company has been approached by drone operators. Hydro-Québec does not use the small aircraft yet, but “is closely monitoring the technology and possible drone applications,” says spokesperson Marc-Antoine Pouliot. Manitoba Hydro has not adopted drone technology to maintain and inspect its network either. While it has considered the possibility, “the issue is still in the exploratory phase,” says Lynne Champagne, French-language communications consultant at the energy company. “We’re waiting for regulators to tell us what permits are needed.” Since drones have to be flown in the visual line of sight, “we’d give it more consideration if drones could be remote-controlled from an office,” Champagne adds.

NETWORKS SPANNING THOUSANDS OF KILOMETRES

In France, however, power company EDF has been using drones to monitor its electric grid and transformer substations for nearly three years. And after monitoring advances in drone technology since 2005, the country’s rail company, SNCF, acquired its first UAV in 2013. Since then, the French railway has conducted many tracking experiments and missions to improve network performance and safety. Both companies also entered into agreements with small drone operators, including Paris-based Azur Drones, to facilitate their network inspections.

“It gave us a shot in the arm,” says Stéphane Morelli, a former commander of the French Army’s drone regiment, which founded Azur Drones in 2012. The company, which also inspects buildings in the real estate industry, has 10 employees and a four-drone fleet. A tell-tale sign of the growing popularity of drones is the fact that Azur Drones expects to earn one million euros ($1.5 million) in revenue in 2016, compared with 700,000 euros last year and 140,000 euros in 2014.

Approximately 2,200 French companies are registered with the French Civil Aviation Authority and authorized to fly drones for professional purposes. “UAVs have really taken off,” says Morelli, who chairs France’s Civil Drone Professional Federation, which was created in the summer of 2013 by civil drone operators Azur Drones and Redbird, and builders Infotron and Delair-Tech. Support from big players EDF and SNCF has been instrumental in this growth. Both these companies, as well as many other UAV-service clients (Engie, Aéroports de Paris, RTE, GRTgaz, ERDF), are involved in a task force overseen by the French Civil Drone Council, in collaboration with the country’s Civil Aviation Authority and French drone manufacturers and operators. The objective is to “identify their needs and work together in developing the drone business,” says Morelli.

PACKAGE DELIVERIES BY DRONES: UTOPIA OR REALITY?

Online retail giant Amazon caused a stir in 2013 when it announced its drone delivery project. However, no one should expect books, mail, pizzas or packages to be home-delivered by drones any time soon. For now, “it’s a much-publicized project, but it won’t become a reality for another few years,” Vidal says. Morelli agrees. “It was a great publicity stunt just before the start of holiday shopping. But it won’t get off the ground for another five or six years.” On the upside, Morelli thinks that Amazon’s initiatives have raised awareness of the potential of drone applications.

Nevertheless, when it comes to consumers receiving packages by carrier drones, it’s not a matter of if but when, since Amazon is still experimenting and has already conducted tests in rural areas in British Columbia. The company’s goal is to make drone deliveries in 30 minutes or less after online orders are placed.

The online retailer is not the only company to venture into the world of drone deliveries. Since 2012, Google has been working on a drone delivery service called Project Wing. The Internet giant began testing it in Australia in 2014 and believes its fleet will be in the air as early as 2017. Google’s prototype can hover and winch down packages weighing up to 1.5 kilograms. Last October, US distributor Walmart also announced its plan to use drones to better serve its customers.

Mail and package delivery service companies, such as UPS and FedEx, are also considering the potential of drone use. “Like other delivery companies, we’re looking into it,” said Canada Post spokesperson Anick Losier, although she declined to elaborate.

And Matternet, a California startup founded in 2011, has carried out a series of tests in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to deliver medicine and other medical supplies to inaccessible or dangerous areas.

But beyond developing drone technology, companies must also contend with regulatory issues. To address them, Amazon has proposed a series of measures to regulate delivery drone air traffic, including carving out low-altitude airspace for UAVs.

Until then, the fact remains that there is an increasing number of drones flying over farms, forests, mines, buildings, power grids and railroads all over the world, opening the door to new ways of doing business.

NOT JUST ANYONE CAN FLY A DRONE

The use of UAVs is regulated by Transport Canada, which can impose fines of up to $25,000 on drone users who flout the law. “The regulations are strict and complex, and little known,” says Marc Moffatt of the Unmanned Aerial System Centre of Excellence in Alma, Que.

Under existing regulations, Transport Canada differentiates between recreational and commercial drone use. For instance, a permit is not required to fly a UAV weighing less than 35 kilograms for recreation purposes, including filming or taking pictures for noncommercial use. However, in keeping with trespassing and privacy legislation, it is prohibited to fly a drone anywhere near buildings or crowds. Also, UAVs must not pose a risk to air safety.

Commercial drone operators must obtain a special flight operations certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada. The SFOC sets out the parameters of authorized flights — that is, when, where and how the UAV will be used. The time Transport Canada takes to process a certificate application varies. “Generally, we get the necessary authorization within 48 hours,” says Michel Drolet of Quebec-based TerraScan 3D.

Transport Canada allows for some exemptions. For example, an operator flying a drone weighing less than two kilograms and within the visual line of sight is not required to obtain an SFOC. An exemption also applies to UAVs with a maximum take-off weight between two and 25 kilograms and a maximum calibrated airspeed of 87 knots, and operated within the visual line of sight. In short, “commercial drone operators must apply for a certificate in most cases,” says Moffatt.

Transport Canada has been monitoring drone use since 2006, when a joint task force composed of government and industry representatives reviewed the legislation in force and made recommendations on regulations. A subsequent review was carried out in 2010, and the task force issued new recommendations in 2015, which will lead Transport Canada to introduce regulations later this year to ensure airspace safety and foster innovation and growth in the drone industry.

DRONES THROUGHOUT HISTORY

Drones are remote-controlled unpiloted air vehicles that can sometimes operate fully autonomously. The heavy casualties suffered in air combat during the Second World War led to the creation of crewless military reconnaissance aircraft. During the Vietnam War, Americans used Firebee drones to locate Soviet surface-to-air missile launchers. Later, during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Pioneer drones were used in reconnaissance missions and to adjust artillery accuracy. France and Britain also began using drones in the Gulf War. But the operational capability of drones in aerial reconnaissance (intelligence gathering) became most evident during the recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the CIA’s use of endlessly circling Predator drones to fire Hellfire missiles at perceived enemies in countries with which the US is not at war (such as Pakistan and Yemen) is the subject of media and movie attention.