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Monitoring the Canadian UAV Frontier

Nov. 18, 2013, Vancouver - Unmanned Systems Canada (USC) visited Vancouver November 12-14 for its annual unmanned systems conference, and once again, attendees were left with a sense of intrigue about what the future holds for the commercial and military landscape in this country.


November 18, 2013
By Paul Dixon

Topics

Eleven years ago if someone had told you that in only a few years you
would be able to control an aircraft from your cellphone, you would have
likely thought they were a crackpot. However, the growth of USC over
that same period is ample demonstration of the difference between
crackpot and visionary. The future is happening right now and USC has
firmly established itself at the crossroads where end users,
manufacturers, operators, regulators and educators come together under
one banner.

The first day of this year’s conference brought representatives from the
resource and utility sectors together to talk about their needs, both
present and future, inviting unmanned aerial vehicle developers and
operators to bring them solutions to today’s challenges. In many ways,
it was a “how-to” analysis of the potential use of UAVs in current
operations.

Take Vancouver-based Teck Resources for example. The company ships 25
million tonnes of coal from southeastern B.C. by rail to Vancouver from
where it is shipped around the world. Four times a year, the coal piles
at Neptune Terminals and Westshore Terminals in Port Metro Vancouver
where it must be audited to enable the reconciliation of the amount of
coal leaving the mines against that passing through the port. Today, the
data is captured by fixed-wing flights, which cost between from $10,000
to $20,000 each time. But could it be done less expensively using a
UAV? If a simple UAV could be used, perhaps in-house staff could
undertake the flights instead of contracting a third-party supplier.

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Photo by Paul Dixon.

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In another example, BC Hydro has 18,000 kilometres of transmission lines
in the province and 2,200 steel towers. Inspections are required every
three to five years of every part of the system. Helicopters are
expensive and there is considerable danger involved with the nature of
the job. How much of the inspection work could be done by a UAV rather
than a helicopter?

UAVs could also be worthwhile in the forestry industry. There are real
challenges in Canada with widespread insect damage to stocks and the
impact of climate change. For 90 years, aviation has been the main tool
for obtaining information for the planning phase in forestry. UAVS could
be the perfect tool for acquiring timely, relevant, low-cost
information in an environment that is changing more quickly than ever
before.

There are also hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipelines and
underground utilities crisscrossing North America – all requiring
frequent inspection. Why not consider using UAVs? The message was clear
from all the industry speakers, however, that before UAVs can become
useful tools, more information, higher quality information, must be
delivered in a more timely fashion. We don’t need more expensive
solutions, we need something that works.

Canadian Forces personnel were front and center at the event, providing a
morning session on the use of UAVs to date – army, navy and air force.
Topics of interest included lessons learned from the missions in support
of operations in Afghanistan and Libya and where we are headed in the
future. UAVs will play a significant role in all three branches of the
military, but unlike many other countries, Canada’s UAVs will be
required to operate in a wide range of environments, from the tropics to
the high arctic while supporting the missions of all three services.
Command and control systems will need to be common across all three
services so the same platform can provide mission support in any
military environment.

Unmanned Systems Canada also sponsors an annual student competition,
which has grown from three teams in the first year to 14 teams that will
compete in Southport, Man. in May 2014. USC further supports students
in related fields by sponsoring an annual competition where students vie
for the opportunity to present at the conference. This year, three PhD
students were selected to make full presentations at the event, an
experience that gave them invaluable exposure to the professional
community and at the same time enabled them to gain a better
understanding of how their research fits in with the industry at large.


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