The word “armed” blinks red on the laptop screen as a propeller whirs to life. Soon, the drone rises steadily over a dusty landscape.
But this isn’t Afghanistan – it’s Milton, Ont., where geographer Scott McTavish is using his autonomous aircraft to survey a gravel pit.
McTavish first turned to drones, officially named unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), in 2008, while working for a forestry company in B.C.
"When we started five years ago, there weren't too many options,” he says, referring to the availability of UAVs and the scaled-down, lightweight components required to keep them aloft.
Now, McTavish runs a company, Accuas Inc., that specializes in aerial surveys and mapping using drones equipped with compact digital cameras. He has a fleet of 10 unmanned aircraft ranging in size from small, multi-rotor helicopters to much larger fixed-wing planes, and employs eight full-time staff in offices across the country. Business is booming.
"Flying a helicopter or a plane isn't cost effective for a lot of jobs and now it’s not the only choice," says John Fairs, an aerial survey specialist with Dillon Consulting who is keen to offer this new technology to his clients.
"It’s mind-boggling how quickly this area is growing," says Fairs. "The applications are endless."
More than just eyes in the sky
While much of the debate about drones centres on their surveillance abilities or capacity to launch Hellfire missiles at suspected insurgents, there are many non-military applications.
For example, the RCMP uses UAVs in search-and-rescue operations, and credits the use of a drone for helping save the life of a man who rolled his vehicle off a road near Saskatoon in May. Meanwhile, researchers at McGill University are using them to keep track of bird and bear populations.
In Japan, where unmanned aircraft have been used commercially for 20 years, miniature helicopters such as Yamaha’s RMAX monitor crop growth on steep hill sides more effectively – and at a lower cost – than a tractor or airplane.
Transport Canada governs the use of UAVs and requires commercial operators to file a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) for every flight.
Canada's UAV legislation, in place since 2008 and modified in 2010, enables people like Scott McTavish to make a living operating drones.
Current U.S. legislation forbids the use of commercial drones, but that is expected to change in 2015. That’s when the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Drones Act, which was passed last year, will require commercial jets and drones to share the same air space.
The commercial drones industry is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. So far, the FAA has received applications from 37 states vying to be chosen as one of six test locations where the ban on commercial drone use will be lifted. Those states will be chosen by the end of the year.
In Canada, the requirements to legally fly a drone for pay are strict and that’s a good thing, according to McTavish.
"The last thing you want is loose regulations where anyone can go out and potentially cause damage, or infringe on privacy," he says.
UAV or model airplane?
UAVs differ from remote controlled (RC) model aircraft in one big way: They don't require a human to fly them.
Unlike an RC plane or helicopter, a true UAV can fly on autopilot, relying on onboard computers and a pre-programmed route.
Once off the ground, drones like the ones McTavish uses can follow complex flight paths – such as ones plotted on Google Earth – autonomously, even automatically popping a parachute when the mission is done.
The largest UAV in McTavish's fleet is the Areohawk RQ-84Z, a New Zealand-made aircraft with a wing span near three metres and a price tag approaching $50,000. It looks like a miniature glider, complete with a smooth, elongated nose and shiny white paint job.
While much smaller than a manned aircraft, it takes two people to get it into the air – one to fire up the propeller, which is controlled from a laptop, and another to launch it, which is accomplished by carefully tossing it off a hilltop.
Once in the air, it has enough battery life for a little over an hour of flying time.
The booming interest in commercial drones has also benefitted hobby flyers. Dany Thivierge is an IT professional by day who by night operates Canada Drones out of his Mississauga, Ont. garage.
It began as a labour of love, but after four years in business, Thivierge has established himself as a go-to man for hobbyists in need of UAV parts and know-how. He says he's putting through over a dozen orders a night and hopes to soon be able to quit his day job.
The computing power capable of keeping four or even eight miniature helicopter rotors spinning in sync is largely the product of open source tinkerers sharing discoveries online, says Thivierge.
"There's some very bright people doing firmware and software… the stuff that makes them easy to fly," says Thivierge.
The commercial interest in drones is only likely to increase, as businesses come up with new uses for these flying vessels. Last year, a team of engineers in California launched the Burrito Bomber, a UAV that uses GPS coordinates to drop burritos by parachute.
Continuing with the food theme, in June, Dominos Pizza U.K. put up a video – which now has over one million views on YouTube – showing an eight-rotor Domicopter carrying pizzas over the English countryside. This month, a dry-cleaning business in Philadelphia followed suit with a video of an RC copter returning a customer’s shirts.
"Five years ago, the challenge was keeping a multi-rotor copter in the air," says Thivierge. But now that the technology has become so sophisticated, "anyone can find new applications – it’s just brainstorming more ideas."