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The UAV Frontier

July 29, 2015  By Paul Dixon

I took a day off from the continuing hunt for Amazon’s secret Canadian drone testing facility for a reality check. That would be the opportunity to attend a recent Vancouver Entrepreneur Forum on the subject of UAVs

The aprés-work event attracted a wide range of Vancouver’s younger business community to hear about things that fly from a diverse panel already well-versed in the business. The meet and greet was a great read on the crowd and introduced me to a whole new segment that may or may not play a large role in taking UAVs forward.

These were the young entrepreneurs and recent MBA grads and erstwhile venture capitalists – people of the generation that is still on the rise, looking for the next big thing. They’re not the technical minds, they’re the business minds and the intriguing thing is that these young minds are going to see uses for UAVs that the experienced or “mature” isn’t willing or able to consider. It was a meeting of the minds – entrepreneurs, operators and potential investors.

The evening’s panel discussion was moderated by Paul Bennett of Aerobotika, a company that offers a wide range of services for those looking to get further into the business applications of UAVs. Members of the panel included the director of marketing for a major commercial real estate firm who uses UAVs in developing new marketing programs for both urban and rural properties; a lawyer with a major national law firm who handles the unique legal challenges and issues associated with the emerging world of UAVs and robotics; a university geography professor who uses UAVs as part of his study of the uses of remote sensing as a tool for mapping and monitoring a wide range of ecosystems around the world; and a local post-secondary institution that has added a UAV program into its media production department with the aim of exposing the potential of UAVs to students in as many disciplines as possible – marketing, 3D modeling, inspections, geo-mapping, forestry, wildlife observation and as many uses as students can come up with. In a nutshell, it was a group of people who can talk about the future uses of UAVs from the
perspective of those who are doing it now and not simply as pie-in-the-sky optimists.

Bennett set the table for the panel with the statement that Canada is a “drone powerhouse” and there are hundreds of potential startups on the verge, which seemed to surprise many in the audience. Adding to the audience’s surprise was having Transport Canada (TC) in attendance for the Q&A session and hearing that “yes,” Canada really is out in front, at least for now. Leveraging the last few years of UAV development to keep Canada out front is going to take continued active participation from TC, but it also requires a reality check on the part of the end user and a big push on the technology front before UAVs are truly ready for prime time. These are the major roadblocks as seen by the panel members that need to be overcome:

  • People don’t grasp the level of technology. These are not toys that can be flown right out of the box. Sensors need to be calibrated and systems need to be maintained to a high standard;
  • People who don’t know the rules governing the operation of UAVs and make no effort to educate themselves;
  • Operations limited by battery capacity. Battery technology has to increase by a huge factor before UAVs move out of the backyard;
  • Before UAVs can move out of the backyard and beyond line-of-sight operations, sense and avoid technology has to be developed that works at this level. Like your average teenager, you need a high level of confidence that your UAV will come home when it is supposed to and not get into trouble when it’s out there on its own.

If you decide that UAVs have a place in your future or your business’ future, then you are going to have to grapple with trying to figure out just what it is you want to do, or more importantly, what it is that using the UAV will do for you that can’t be done any other way. Then you’re going to have to figure out if this is something you can do yourself – owning and operating your UAV or is it going to be more expedient to contract with a dedicated UAV operator to provide the services as you need them?  

I left the forum after the panel discussion concluded as the noshing and sloshing portion of the evening ramped up. The room was buzzing and the excitement was palpable. It might not be the Wild West era of UAV development, but there’s still a lot of dust in the air. Giddy up!

Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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