Take the roofing industry.
Michael H. Cohen, president of Toronto-based drone operator Industrial SkyWorks, says that in the past, inspecting roofs for heat loss meant climbing up on the roof to do it manually.
"The industry had for 30 years been walking roofs with handheld thermographic cameras at night, an incredibly dangerous and inefficient activity," he said in an interview.
Now, an operator can stand in a parking lot as the drone combs a building's roof in a grid pattern.
Ian Glenn, CEO of drone manufacturer ING Robotic Aviation, says that a similar transformation is playing out among big infrastructure inspections that involve power lines, flare stacks and wind mills -- anywhere that workers previously had to actually climb up the equipment to look at it.
"In everything we do, we reduce the cost, the risk, and the footprint of what we do," said Glenn.
The potential of drones caught Wade Ewen's attention in 2013. As a geographic information systems specialist at Cenovus Energy, he manages the company's air photos, terrain mapping and other location data.
"I just saw that it could augment what we were currently doing and provide our data a bit faster, a bit safer, and (at a) better resolution than we'd normally get."
He said Cenovus already has three drones, but plans to buy more so that all their major operations have one on site.
Calgary-based 4Front Robotics is working to create more uses for drones by developing ones that can operate in confined spaces. Company CEO Alex Ramirez-Serrano said that there's been much less progress on that front.
"It's extremely hard," he said. "You don't have GPS, you need to sense and avoid, you need to recognize the environment."
The company's prototypes are already being tested on inspecting storage tanks in oil and gas, flying in mines for rescue operations and zooming through the forest to identify which trees to cut.
So far, battery life has been a limitation for drones, but Cohen said that's improving fast. He remembers when battery life was all of eight minutes, but now some companies have batteries that last upwards of 90 minutes.
"It's said in the drone world we're doubling Moore's principal, so rather than 18 months to double power, we're somewhere around nine months," said Cohen.
Those stronger batteries are also needed to power all the new sensors and equipment being crammed onto the drones.
Waterloo-based Aeryon Labs Inc. introduced a drone earlier this year fitted with a 30 times optical zoom, allowing for a detailed look at topography or infrastructure without needing to get too close to it. The company also has units that can transmit a live video feed to the cloud so that the footage can be viewed by anyone who needs to see it.
Regulations are evolving along with the technology. Currently, Transport Canada requires drone operators to be able to see the drones at all times, but it is considering relaxing that regulation.
Ewen at Cenovus said he would welcome the change.
"Because our areas are so remote, it would be nice to fly several kilometres away from our take-off spot," he said.
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