Satisfying Instant Needs

UAV Technology Can Help Produce Information More Efficiently
Paul Dixon|
March 05, 2015
By Paul Dixon|
While the world’s attention is fixated on high-flying, multi-million dollar military drones waging war half way around the world, their more humble civilian cousins have been hard at work across Canada as the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market is booming.

Flare stack  
Flare stack inspection by a UAV saves time and money – and maximizes site safety as staff stays on the ground.
(Photo courtesy of ING Robotic Aviation)


 
Canada is emerging as a world leader in the commercial application of UAV technology, driven by an industry that has worked with Transport Canada to create regulations that reflect the real world potential (see, “New UAV regulations for commercial use”). UAVs are providing services and a level of quality that was simply not available by other means in a wide range of commercial applications, from real estate, agriculture, industrial inspections and wildlife biology to name but a few. And while the majority of Canadian helicopter operators have yet to incorporate UAVs into their fleets for various projects, they certainly offer intriguing options for future use.

The Canadian military has employed UAVs, or drones as they are popularly known, in a range of deployments outside Canada. ING Robotic Aviation of Montreal provided civilian technicians to the Canadian Army in Afghanistan and on board Royal Canadian Navy frigates on anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean. Today, ING is using that experience to provide services to a wide range of domestic markets. Charles Vidal, ING’s chief technology officer, says that after reaching out to the oil and gas industry, the company has had two or three teams working in the field all fall demonstrating what is possible with a UAV.

With its Responder multi-rotor equipped with a FLIR infrared cameras, the company can detect hydrocarbon leaks from a wide range of sources. “We can map a square kilometre in 20 minutes,” Vidal says. “Flare stack inspection is straightforward with the UAV. The team sends the UAV up equipped with a HD digital camera or FLIR, capture the data and return to the ground where technicians can review the data moments after it is captured. Previously, inspections had to be planned weeks in advance utilizing a commercial crane that would lift technicians above the stack for a visual inspection. Now, with everybody staying on the ground, the job just became much simpler, not to mention the safety factor.

UAVs can also be used to assist in animal management studies. For example, just outside Churchill, Man., ING has been assisting polar bear researchers, giving the scientists an aerial view that is not possible with aircraft or helicopters and at a fraction of the cost. At a height of less than 100 metres, the bears are oblivious to the UAV above them and the high-definition photos taken from directly overhead give scientists a new slant on their subjects.

On Alberta’s Rocky Mountain slopes, grizzly bears are the target of PhD candidate Adam Erickson. The abbreviated title of his PhD is “The Future of Forests for Grizzly Bears in Alberta” for which he is trying to forecast what future forests in the region will be based on recent forest conditions. “The tools we use”, he says, “are not only great for collecting data, but also for creating models. We’re measuring the impact of climate change and the impact of human activity on forest change.”

Erickson, who was a member of UBC’s team at the 2014 Unmanned Systems Canada Student Competition, says that while he has built a number of fixed-wing and multi-rotor UAVs, he has been using a multi-rotor for this particular project. While his project is primarily concerned with bear habitat, Erickson realizes that the same data could be applied in forestry.

“For forest companies, their primary use of UAV information would be forest inventory and economic assessment.  Spectral information should give some indication of the quality of the wood and some indication of tree stress and other things that would help them grow better trees in the future.”

Down on the Farm
In Manitoba, helping farmers grow better crops is what led Terry Moyer to employ a UAV in his job as a regional sales agronomist with Richardson Pioneer, western Canada’s largest handler of grains and oil seeds. The UAV adds another dimension to the year-round services Richardson Pioneer offers to enable farmers to make decisions that will allow them to maximize their returns.

Hexacopter-take-off  
Hexacopter take off – Dr. Holly Fernbach launches “Mobly”, the UAV with Dr. John Durban at the controls.
(Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries)


 
After looking at a range of UAVs, Moyer chose the senseFly eBee Ag fixed-wing UAV for its small size, ease of operation and durable construction. Different camera options offer NIR, red-edge, RGB or multispectral sensors, which ensure the capture of a wide range of data. Historically, the only option available was satellite imagery, but it is expensive and the resolution is nowhere near what the UAV can provide. Satellite resolution is five metres per pixel versus five centimetres for the UAV.

The UAV is also quick to produce data; information can be made available to the farmer within minutes of its capture versus waiting days for satellite imagery. It makes for a different decision point, and as Moyer points out, “then you’re going to make a different decision four or five days later than you would have made that day armed with that information.”

Now, with a UAV, Moyer can meet a farmer in the morning, fly the UAV over the property, download the data onto his laptop literally in the field and present the client with a DVD of the data he needs by noon.

For Moyer, the biggest benefit of the UAV is the ability to validate what is happening “out there on the field.” It can be used to validate a product inquiry or an injury claim where a question is raised about using the wrong product, identify a misapplication or even decipher if a rate of application was wrong. Did a fungicide work or not? “It’s very powerful information,” he says. “The images are incredible, you can see the individual lines in the field and you can see what is happening out there.”

In one instance, Moyer describes a canola field that had been broken into three strips. Within those strips, three different varieties of canola are being tested for lodging. Lodging is a condition where the plant does not stand upright due to a number of factors such as root rot, excess nitrogen, insect damage, wind, rain, hail etc. In the image of the canola plots, the lodging was caused by disease, specifically root rot and later Blackleg. These two diseases are noticeable in the field on foot, but when seen from the air, it was more clearly outlined.

“From that picture,” Moyer says, “we determined to grow the one variety that did not lodge and this correlated to 15 to 20 bushels better yield per acre when harvested. Without a detailed aerial image, you get part of the story and a lot of unanswered questions. The image gives you the whole picture. ‘Ground truthing’ the image to determine the root cause of the final yield is just data. The summary is the image. It backs up and validates the research data we have and the pictures really are worth a thousand words.”

In dry land farming, with no irrigation, excess moisture is a threat and adequate drainage is key.

Now, using the UAV, Moyer can take bare soil imagery at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year, create an elevation map and show the grower where the sinks are and where the high spots are. This allows him to link the drainage up with his regular equipment.

Do Not Disturb the Whales
The Vancouver Aquarium has been studying killer whales on the Pacific Coast for more than 40 years. In 2014, researchers from the aquarium joined forces with colleagues from the UA National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to introduce a custom-build hexacopter to their studies. “Mobly” as they dubbed their “highly mobile” assistant, gave the scientists a window on the lives of killer whales that they had never had before.

The observation of killer whales in the wild has taken place from boats and at a distance. To date, attempts to use fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for research purposes have been less than satisfactory.

Helicopters are expensive and altitude requirements make high-quality photos and video difficult. Mobly, by contrast, by all indications goes unnoticed by the killer whales as it hovered barely 30 metres overhead.

On his blog, Lance Barrett-Lennard, Vancouver Aquarium’s senior marine mammal scientist reported on the first day’s flight, “Mobly performed like a dream – steady, stable, and quiet. The images of the whales were stunning.”  The scientists were trying to answer a fairly simple question – “are the whales getting enough to eat?”

The subjects of their investigation are the Northern Resident killer whales of British Columbia, which are listed as “threatened” under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. These killer whales eat salmon and some of the salmon runs they rely on are much smaller than they use to be, to the point where several of the salmon runs are actually endangered as well. Like Adam, Erickson’s grizzly research, the potential impact of the data gathered could be much wider than initially hoped as new windows are opened.

Looking down from 30 metres above, researchers can acquire more detail on the physical well-being of the whales, which is a very strong indicator as to how much they are getting to eat and their relative health overall. Previously, researchers had to rely on whale mortality from one year to the next to gain insight into their world. Mobly provided thousands of high-resolution photos and video over the 13-day missions, giving the research team a real-time view of the whales in their habitat that was never been available before.

In his blog, Dr. Barrett-Lennard expressed his joy at seeing these animals that he has studied for 25 years from a new perspective, “I did not expect how beautiful they are. They are stunning animals. To seem them in this new perspective is awesome.”

The View from Above
David Carlos of Victoria, B.C, is offering new perspectives to customers through his company, Victoria Aerial Photography and Survey. A licensed pilot, he had, at one time, aspirations of becoming a commercial pilot, but life intervened until he discovered the world of UAVs. Investigating further, he determined that he would need a multi-rotor, which turned out to come with a steep learning curve.

A shot from above  
A shot from above: an overview of the B.C, Legislature building in Victoria.
(Photo courtesy of Victoria Aerial Photography & Survey)


 
“When you first buy them, they tell you it’s easy to fly”, he says, “but that’s not true. I had many crashes while I was learning.” Carlos persevered and his first paid job was two years ago when he was asked if he could shoot video of a sailboat on the water.

The in-your-face perspective of a sailboat running before the wind would have cost thousands of dollars with a helicopter, but the cost with a UAV is a small fraction of that. That’s not to say UAVs will replace helicopters – they simple won’t. But savvy operators could use them for certain tasks and possibly save a bundle.

Real estate agents, for example, are using video shot from UAVs as the latest marketing tool, especially in high-end markets. Carlos is working with a developer who wants a series of precise photos shot on the site of a proposed high-rise development to capture the view from each suite in the building so they can be incorporated into the sales package. A local private golf club ordered a video of the course, giving members a golf ball’s view of their course.

The BC government used Carlos and his DJI Phantom to inspect the roof of the provincial legislature in downtown Victoria, as a test to determine if the HD camera could provide the data required.  The building is more than 100 years old. Using the UAV saves potential damage to the roof from human feet and eliminates the risk of workers falling.

Carlos has become such a passionate advocate for UAVs that he is offering three-day training programs for would-be UAV operators – UAV Basic 101. He crams a lot into three days, including actually flying on the last day. In his mind, he says there are three components to operating a UAV –knowledge, experience and the actual UAV. And while choosing the actual model of UAV to buy is up to you, he wants give out the basic knowledge required to operate it safely with some experience in a controlled environment. 

UAVs are certainly coming in force, and these are just a few examples of how Canadians are putting them to work now, and in the process, reinventing aviation by providing services that were simply not previously available. Looking into the future, it’s tempting to say the sky is the limit, but the reality is, it’s much lower than that.

New UAV regulations for commercial use
While it has been legal to fly a UAV for commercial purpose in Canada since 2008, Transport Canada (TC) introduced new regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles and systems last November. And while it has been legal to fly a UAV or UAS in Canada since 2008 with a special exemption, the new regulations should make things more streamlined for commercial use. Highlights of the new regulations:
  • For aircraft weighing 2 kg or less (about the weight of six cans of soda), you don’t need to request permission to fly
  • For aircraft weighing between 2.1 kg and 25 kg (about the weight of an adult German Shepherd dog), you don’t need to request permission to fly. However, you must notify TC via a form, which includes the UAV model and serial number, description of the operation, and intended geographical boundaries.
In both new exemption situations, of course, you must meet a set of common-sense safety conditions such as keeping at least nine kilometres from airports and at least 150 metres from people, animals, buildings, structures and vehicles; flying no higher than 90 metres above the ground; avoiding restricted airspace such as military bases and prisons, and so forth.

By Canadian law, the working group’s recommendations to TC are publicly available.  – With files from Rick Adams

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