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The Winds of Change

July 18, 2014  By Paul Dixon

If W.O. Mitchell were still alive today, I could tell him that I had seen the wind. Oh yes indeed, for I was at the Unmanned Systems Canada Student UAV Competition May 2-4 at Southport, Man.

If W.O. Mitchell were still alive today, I could tell him that I had seen the wind. Oh yes indeed, for I was at the Unmanned Systems Canada Student UAV Competition May 2-4 at Southport, Man.

On the heels of what may have been the harshest winter on record, the weather was a tad brisk for a visitor from the pineapple groves of the West coast, not to mention the challenges for the intrepid students. The competition has grown like Topsy since its humble beginnings in 2007 at Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador. Due to popular demand, what started out as a biennial event is now on a yearly schedule, with the event rotating between Alma, Que. and Southport.

This year’s competition took a huge step forward with the teams presented with a commercial challenge, whereas previous years had focused on the technical aspects of UAV operation. This year, the teams were given a series of missions taken from everyday examples of commercial aviation. In the scenario, a local authority hires the UAV team to conduct a series of flights over a pipeline right of way (ROW) and the surrounding area to determine if there was any encroachment on the pipeline ROW or illegal activities, collecting photographs and other data. Then, the teams had to determine if there has been any damage to crops in fields abutting the pipeline ROW and map the area, and finally, locate a rockslide on the pipeline ROW and calculate the volume of the slide and its geo-location.

The wind on the opening Friday blew at a steady 25 knots, with frequent gusts well above that and temperatures in the low single digits. The windsocks at the four corners of the airfield were straight out for the day, often pointing in three different directions and it wasn’t uncommon to see two of them pointed directly at each other. This played havoc with the organizers as they tried to lay out the course across the infield of the airport. It was certainly a page out of real life, where dealing with the unexpected, unwanted and unneeded are all too often in your face at the most inconvenient of times. Suffice it to say that, after a few moments of reflection, a unanimous decision was made to create a redesigned course that could survive the weather. A special shout out to Marc Sharpe is deserved for drawing on his forensic skills in the creation of a most sublime “victim” in the middle of the course.


The Friday was supposed to have been a practice day for students, but discretion proved the better part of valour. It was a monumental task simply putting up the popup shelters that each of the 12 teams were to use as their airside operations centres. Saturday brought the same biting wind and offered up a bit of snow, some rain and for a change late in the afternoon a few minutes of hail with a threat of lightning.

Several teams made an attempt to fly but paid the price with a broken or bruised UAV. The one team that flew the course with some degree of success on the Saturday was the Team Dronolab from école de Technologie supérieure (ETS) in Montreal, not incidentally the only team flying quadcopters. Dronolabs’ two quadcopters took off easily in the wind and appeared to have little problem maintaining an even keel as they navigated to course. But the effect of the wind on the quadcopters became apparent when one was forced to land prematurely because the effort to maintain stable flight under such tough conditions cut the battery life in half.

Sunday was a beautiful day, a high blue sky with barely a hint of a breeze. Everyone was off and flying, though we’ll leave it at saying that some flew well and others were more in the “oh well” category. Team VAMUdeS from  Université de Sherbrooke maintained its dominance by taking home the trophy yet again. It was a real-world challenge for a group of students representing the future of Canadian aviation and they gave it their all.

When you consider that, for most of them, the competition came a couple of weeks after final exams, it was an incredibly intense time. Let’s also give a big “attaboy” to those crazy kids who drove literally halfway across the country to be there and were headed home at six in the morning the next day. What particularly impressed me was the overall positive attitude displayed by all competitors. I am very pleased to report that the planning for next year’s event is well underway, and I am very much looking forward to seeing which way the wind blows next year!

Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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