The 2016 Unmanned Canada (UC) conference, hosted in Alberta, provided a venue for companies to outline their programs for new UAV technologies, capabilities, products, and services. One of the key discussions included the effect of visual line-of-sight operational limits on wide ranging commercial UAV applications while the regulatory framework evolves in North America and Europe. However, progress is being made in bringing forth new collision avoidance, or sense and avoid (SAA), systems to enable safe beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight.
Canada has focused on developing a national strategy and infrastructure for UAV operations—a prime example being LOOKNorth, a national non-profit center dedicated to accelerating the development of remote sensing technologies to support sustainable Canadian natural resource development.
LOOKNorth provides economic benefit, identification of specific high technology business opportunities for remote communities, increased export opportunities, attraction of investment capital, and increased productivity through more efficient monitoring of key infrastructure and resources. LOOKNorth has secured investment for operational demonstrations, validated and legalized UAS-related technologies, awarded demonstration projects, and disseminated results and validation programs for stakeholders.
All these things are regarded as a highly attractive framework for innovation. According to LOOKNorth, three key enablers are required for establishing an effective infrastructure: evidence-based decision-making, a common risk management collaborative environment, and shared knowledge.
From January 2016 to October 2016, Alberta suffered 1329 wildfires that required emergency support aircraft from 103 companies. Over 30,000 hours were flown to support emergency operations, which included UAV operations from a variety of service providers. With increasing use of drones, investments have been made training operators, standard operating procedures have been established, and enforcement legislation has been reviewed and updated.
Robert Atwood, CEO of Hummingbird Drones, explained how the use of drones had introduced a new transformative role in the detection of “hot spots” where visually unseen high temperatures beneath the surface or amongst smoldering tree remains might lead to another eruption of flames.
Manned helicopters using handheld IR cameras and GPS monitors for “cold trailing” could miss hot spots and other natural heated objects, such as deer, bears, or rocks, could give a false indication. Drones provided a highly efficient and accurate solution (compared to higher-flying aircraft, satellite sensors, and ground sensors) and could cover extensive areas in a repeatable grid pattern over a time frame of up to seven hours. Software discrimination solutions allow operators to discount false heat source indicators and to concentrate on those that look of most interest.
RME Geomatics, a Calgary-based division of Rocky Mountain Equipment Canada Ltd, was founded in 2012 to provide aerial data capture and mapping for survey, engineering, and construction industries. Their business has expanded to include energy, agriculture, forestry, mining, and government agencies responsible for land management. Its UAVs are used extensively for digital terrain modeling and analysis using LiDAR (light-detection and ranging) data capture via specialist sensors, which can map ground surfaces, even under tree and vegetation cover in daylight or darkness—the latter an important benefit when long Northern winters severely restrict daylight hours.
Three dimensional models can be produced of terrain or industrial sites and multi-spectral photography can map soils, crops, and forests to monitor their health and help develop optimized drainage and fertilization schemes. The company offers an end-to-end service, and is one of the few Canadian companies that holds an Unspecified Location Specific Flight Operations Certificate for all regions from Transport Canada (TC). At the exhibition RME Geomatics displayed its compact Renegade multi-purpose rotary wing UAV mounted on the flat deck of a small all-terrain vehicle.
Mark Hovdestad from Locked On Solutions, drew upon his experience as a bush pilot and as a worker for the federal government air service to establish a robust RPAS program that combines his client activities with a continuing role with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in charge of the Edmonton Air Section. Recognizing that the growth in UAV flight is causing increased pressure on air space and a growth in reported “near misses,” he has built a partnership between his company and GIS software-development specialists to introduce a user-friendly software based solution being launched as RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) ARMS (Airspace Risk Management System).
This equips the remotely located UAV pilot with a tool that allows safe and simple, legally compliant management of the vehicle’s own airspace. It also allows the airspace control providers the ability to adjust privileges and limitations as required.
As airspace integration processes change, whether locally or on a national scale, users will be made aware of the changes where applicable, depending on their flight location. This will give an assurance to the pilot that the flight is legal and safe where limitations are understood and all other integration instructions are followed. This airspace risk management solution is subscription-based with updates sent to subscribers and is aimed at providing a flexible new tool for pilots, regulators, air-traffic controllers. and program managers.
Search and rescue
The increasing use of drones for law enforcement use was mentioned in several conference sessions. David Domoney, who has been closely involved in the RCMP RPAS program described how RCMP UAV operations began and developed from one vehicle for incident photography to 150 for collision reconstruction, examination of crime scenes, assisting emergency response teams, and search and rescue. Domoney mentioned that the RCMP used a UAV in a search and rescue situation where snow conditions made other methods of searching problematic.
There are now 200 trained and equipped RCMP RPAS operators comprising regular officers and civilian members of the force. A pilot training course for RPAS operations had been developed by the force and applied nationally with vehicles optimized for the role and region as required.
One enthusiast for disruptive technology solutions linking up drones, autonomous operations, and real-world applications is Alexander Harmsen, CEO of Iris Automation. Alex has a background as a software developer, having worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab on computer vision systems and was also closely involved at Matternet, Silicon Valley’s medical drone package delivery startup.
At UC he presented his vision of how Iris Automation was bringing BVLOS operations closer to reality. Currently, TC and the FAA set limitations on operating only within sight of UAV hinders the utility of using UAVs for dull, but essential tasks such as power supply, pipeline inspections, and monitoring fire-risk areas. Iris Automation has developed a collision avoidance system that it hopes will move the whole drone sector toward BVLOS operations.
The company’s first product is a combination of off-the-shelf chips and components, plus proprietary software that can instruct a drone’s autopilot system when there is any obstacle nearby and how to make adjustments instantly to avoid it. He said that test flights have started with selected partners and his intention is to build systems that are agnostic and can be added to drones and autopilots made by any manufacturer for commercial markets. These include DJI, Firefly Precision Hawk, MicroPilot, and Airware.
The company raised $500K in pre-seed funding from Bee Partners and Y Combinator. Partner Geoff Ralston said, “To do real work with drones you have to prove to TC and the FAA that they can co-exist with passenger airplanes and that the probability of a collision is something like that of a jet airliner, or even less.” The Iris Automation solution processes visual data in real time so it can see structures or objects that suddenly appear, like birds, helicopters, or airplanes, and not just static hazards that can be mapped using GPS.
Moving Target Indication (typically out to 1000 m) could classify a target and then the algorithm design would apply a trajectory model based on the prediction, integrating the data with the auto-pilot to produce a collision avoidance capability. Iris Automation is working toward solving these problems by integrating data from numerous input sources and incorporating it in software that can be part of compact flight system packages carried in small air vehicles.
Kongsberg Geospatial specializes in precision real-time software for mapping, geospatial visualization, and situational awareness. It has developed a new platform for commercial UAVs that incorporates technology from its work on air-traffic management display systems, and military UAVs. It features 2D maps and 3D terrain data and overlays additional information highlighting dangerous surface obstacles, air traffic zones and airfield locations, and real-time sensor inputs from multiple sources including radar, electro-optical inputs, and weather data, all integrated in a user-friendly visual display that can show predicted potential airspace conflicts, alerting the pilot with a yellow highlighted symbol in plenty of time to change course.
For the last two years the system has been used by Kongsberg Geospatial and UAV manufacturers and potential operators in field trials in collision-avoidance scenarios. The UAS application has also been selected for the FAA ASSURE program for ongoing research into collision avoidance and BVLOS technologies.