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Sharing the Skies

October 14, 2011  By Paul Dixon

Drone, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) or even Pilot-Optional.

Drone, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) or even Pilot-Optional. What’s in a name? It’s the future calling, where the second century of powered flight promises to be as innovative and exciting as the first 100 years.

The Ontario Provincial Police uses UAVs at six of its detachments. The X-6, manufactured by Saskatoon’s Draganfly Systems, is a valuable crime fighter. (Photo courtesy of Draganfly Systems)


Once the stuff of science fiction and futurists, a host of aerial vehicles are poised to fly higher and faster or even lower and slower without a human presence in the cockpit or even a cockpit. From mini-flyers that barely cover the palm of your hand to solar-powered flyers at stratospheric heights, unmanned aviation is a bit of a wild frontier for aerospace.

Unlike conventional aircraft, UAVs can exceed the operational parameters of crewed missions, such as dangerous low-level operations and extended missions where human fatigue becomes a crucial factor in decision-making and information gathering. As airframe designs, control systems, and onboard sensors become more reliable, smaller, lighter, longer-lasting, safer, and cheaper, the economic advantages of UAVs will become more attractive to civilian operators. So, is it something to keep an eye on? Most definitely.


Fred Jones, president of the Helicopter Association of Canada, suggested during Helicopters’ first roundtable discussion in Vancouver this spring that UAVs “will eat your lunch” if you don’t pay attention to their development. In the years ahead, there’s little doubt they will fill the skies in what have historically been helicopter-operating areas.

A Force to Be Reckoned With
As the Canadian Forces completes its mission in Afghanistan, Col. Gordon Reid of the A3 Aviation Patrol and Transport at 1 Canadian Air Division, reports that the CF has “fallen in love” with the UAVs it deployed in Afghanistan. In 2003, the CF deployed the CU-161 Sperwer. The rail-launched truck-mounted Sperwer proved to have a steep operational learning curve, but it provided an invaluable education to the CF and filled the gap until the next generation of UAVs could be fully assessed.

In August of this year, a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B rotary-wing UAV completed a six-month deployment on the frigate USS McInerney. (Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman)


While the world’s attention was focused on Predators and their lethal cousin, the Grim Reaper, Canadians focused on UAVs that were specific to the needs of the mission in Afghanistan. The Sperwers were replaced by Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Cu-170 Herons, leased from McDonald, Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C. The Heron, with a service ceiling of 27,000 feet and reported endurance in excess of 40 hours, was able to provide what Col. Reid describes as “persistent and constant surveillance” across the entire Canadian area of responsibility operating on a 24/7 basis.

At the tactical level, ground troops had small UAVs such as the Scan Eagle and Skylark. The Scan Eagle, pneumatically launched from a small trailer, has a range of up to 100 kilometres and an endurance of up to 20 hours. The Scan Eagle can provide reconnaissance capabilities to larger military units across a wide battlefront.

The Skylark is designed to be carried in a backpack and assembled in the field as needed. Hand-launched, the electrically powered craft has a range of five to 10 kilometres and can stay aloft for up to two hours. Operated from a control system the size of a laptop computer, the Skylark allows troops in the most forward positions to literally look around corners and determine what is behind buildings, walls and other obstructions without exposing themselves to ambush.

Col. Reid says the CF is likely a year or two away from making a decision as to the next generation of UAVs that will be employed. The CF is looking at a number of systems, from the simplest to the high-flying long-range models. Reid goes on to say that there are other considerations dependent on the decisions, such as the personnel requirements for operating any given system. Following a long-standing tradition, Canada currently has personnel serving with Australian and American military units employing UAVs in order to better bridge the gap between today and the day when the CF acquires its next generation of UAVs.

The CF is also looking ahead with an eye to integrating UAVs with existing platforms, as “force multipliers,” in military jargon. “Much as a helicopter complements a warship, the UAV can greatly expand the effective coverage area if it is paired with a helicopter or a long-range aircraft such as the CP-140 Aurora,” Reid says. “The UAV can monitor patterns of activity for extended periods across a broad area.”

The helicopter or patrol aircraft can be used much more effectively for investigating contacts made by the UAV. “(This pairing) can be used for military purposes such as enforcing the naval blockade of Libya, anti-piracy patrols or extending current domestic programs such as assisting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in monitoring foreign fish boats and monitoring drift nets,” says Reid.

To illustrate the point, in August of this year, a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout rotary-wing UAV completed a six-month deployment on the frigate USS McInerney. The UAV flew 435 operational hours during the deployment on piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa and in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, often paired with a UH-60B helicopter.

Eyes to the Future
While the military use of UAVs expands exponentially, civilian aviation has two major obstacles to overcome. Firstly, there has to be a level of safety equivalent to that of manned aircraft. UAVs will have to be able to “see” and avoid other aircraft, before there will be operations in regulated airspace. Then there’s the matter of having a viable business plan – matching the aircraft to the job.

The U.S. navy has successfully used UAVs such as the MQ-8B Fire Scout in a wide variety of military applications. (Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman)


Unmanned Systems Canada (USC) is a national not-for-profit organization that represents the Canadian unmanned vehicle systems community: aviation (UAS), ground vehicles (UGV) and underwater (UUV). Formed in 2009 from the merger of two groups, USC has grown from a handful of members to more than 50 corporate members. USC executive director Wayne Crowe explains that Transport Canada has commissioned a working group comprising all interested stakeholders to develop the regulations necessary to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into Canadian airspace.

“This is a controversial issue of great importance to our membership,” says Crowe. “Accordingly, Unmanned Systems Canada is well represented – the working group charged with developing the regulations is co-chaired by Transport Canada and Unmanned Systems Canada and many of our members have positions in the actual working group.” The work has been subdivided into three sub-groups concentrating on: People (pilot, operator and maintenance training, competencies and licensing); Product (registration, flight authority and airworthiness); and Operations and Access to Airspace.

These sub-groups are currently meeting and have divided the exercise into four phases:

  • Phase 1 – UAS below 25 kilograms and operated within visual line of sight
  • Phase 2 – UAS below 25 kilograms operated beyond visual line of sight
  • Phase 3 – All operations of UAS between 25 and 150 kilograms
  • Phase 4 – All UAS operations in Canadian airspace (file and fly)

The working groups are expected to present a set of proposed regulations for the initial phase to the TC advisory committee by the spring of 2012, and all phases are to be addressed within six years. Formal UAS air regulations will be issued following government approval; however, it is anticipated that the results of the deliberations and recommendations will be reflected in internal guidelines for special flight authorizations on an ongoing basis as they are accepted. If everything goes as planned, Crowe says, “by the time the proposed regulations become law they will have already become everyday practice.”

In terms of research and development, USC sponsors a student competition to promote and develop Canadian expertise and experience in unmanned systems technologies at the university and college levels. The 2011 competition attracted 18 teams from Canadian schools, up from four in 2007 and 10 in 2009. The theme of this year’s event was support to forest fire fighting, with a parallel competition that included two unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). The ground vehicles were to patrol a designated firebreak, and when an event occurred that triggered their sensors, the UGV was to report to the UAS overhead. The UAS would then investigate using its sensors and stream information back to the base station.

The competition, held at CF Citadel Val Cartier outside Quebec City, had two phases: Phase 1, the preparation of design papers for review, comment and scoring by a panel of experts; and Phase 2, the operational demonstration event. The winner of both phases of the UAS competition was the team from Université de Sherbrooke.

USC has also been researching Canada’s role in Arctic monitoring and assessment with a view to assisting in the implementation of unmanned vehicles in meeting Canada’s international Arctic obligations. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) is an international organization that reports to the Arctic Council. It is actively supported by the eight Arctic countries, responding to governmental requests for information on the Arctic.

Unmanned Systems Canada is a member of the AMAP UAS Expert Group established at the request of the Arctic Council in response to needs voiced by the scientific community for access to gather important environmental and climate data using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Mark Aruja, USC’s communications director describes it as “working with the scientists to understand what they want to achieve and what technology they can use . . . a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft can’t fly 100 feet above the ground for hundreds of kilometres in the high Arctic.”

An Enhanced Border Presence
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security started using a fleet of six Predator UAVs last year to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. Earlier this year, Predators started flying the Canada-U.S. border across the prairies. In a demonstration of potential uses of the technology, sensors on several Predators were used to gather information on wildfires burning close to the border in Arizona and New Mexico this spring. The data was streamed in real time to firefighting authorities. At the 2010 Aerial Firefighting Conference in Richmond, B.C., representatives of Lockheed Martin extolled the virtues of the Predator as an information-gathering tool for wildland firefighters. The problem they admitted to facing was that, under current air space regulations, the Predator could not be operated over any populated areas, making it applicable in about one per cent of the potential market.

The MQ-8B Fire Scout conducts operations aboard the USS Halyburton (FFG 40) during its second at-sea deployment. (Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman’s Ryan Colebourn)


At the same conference, Kathe Rich of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks talked about her experience the previous year using a Scan Eagle UAV to support the Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Fire Service.

When dense and widespread smoke made manned flights too dangerous, the UAV was deployed over several massive fires, using its infrared sensors to track the progression of the fires and identify hot spots. Rich described the missions as, “nothing fancy, just a matter of identifying where the actual fire is and in case of it being able to tell if the fire had crossed a river.” For this mission, the university needed to obtain an emergency certificate of authority from the FAA to fly in civil airspace. While the Scan Eagle was in the air, no other aircraft were permitted.

In Canada, law enforcement has taken the low road, so to speak. In 2007, Const. Mark Sharpe of the Kenora Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) put his experience with radio-controlled aircraft to work on his day job as a forensic identification officer, by testing and operating small RC UAVs equipped with digital cameras for crime scene photography. Today, the OPP has UAVs at six detachments around Ontario, both the X-6 manufactured by Draganfly Systems of Saskatoon, Sask., and the Scout, manufactured by Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ont. At about $30,000 each, the small UAVs are cost-effective to operate. Since November last year, the OPP has operated them under a Special Flight Operations Certificate covering all of Ontario that permits flight over urban areas.

Multiple Applications
In a “back to the future” moment, the airship or blimp may return as a pilot-optional “heavylifter” or “ultralifter” as a result of a program initiated by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2006, DARPA announced a project to develop and evaluate a “very large airlift vehicle, “capable of carrying 500 tons a distance of 12,000 nautical miles in less than seven days. While the DARPA project has yet to see the light of day, several companies are promising delivery in the near future of hybrid airships that have lifting capacity in the range of 20 tons. Heavier than air, hybrids combine the lifting power of helium with conventional motive power, with the result being extra-large STOL aircraft.

Unmanned Systems Canada (USC) annually sponsors a student competition to promote and develop Canadian expertise and experience in unmanned systems technologies at the university and college levels. This year’s winning team from Université de Sherbrooke: (left to right) Simon William Kirouac, Sébastien Léonard Godbout, Jonathan Bouchard, William Lemaire and David Tremblay. Missing is Eric Demers. (Photo courtesy of Unmanned Systems Canada)


From the world of science fiction, a press release issued by the University of Southampton, England, in July states “engineers at the University of Southampton have designed and flown the world’s first ‘printed’ aircraft, which could revolutionize the economics of aircraft design.” The release goes on to say, “the SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser-sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer. No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using ‘snap fit’ techniques so the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes.” Powered by an electric motor, the aircraft has a wingspan of two metres and is capable of speeds up to 100 kilometres per hour. The university is initiating a postgraduate program in September 2011 covering the design, manufacture and operation of robotic vehicles.

Helicopters talked to a number of leading Canadian rotary operators about their future plans for UAVs. And while there is definitely awareness and some interest, few are willing to talk on the record – understandable in an industry with a high degree of competition. The general consensus was pretty much the same – “no plans to incorporate UAVs in our operations at this time.” But down the road? Jones said it best with his “eat your lunch” quip. “It will depend on the ability of the industry to accept and adapt to the technology,” he says. “(The fact is) we should be looking at embracing the technology.”


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