Drones active in Canadian skies well before UPS, Amazon considered delivery drones

(Image courtesy of Aeryon Labs)Since Amazon announced its intention to use drones for local deliveries in the not-so-distant future, the world has been abuzz (no pun intended) with talk of the unmanned aircraft. But while many Americans are discussing drones as if they’re still science fiction, here in Canada, they’re more like science fact.

While you won’t see Canada Post dropping a package off at your home via drone any time soon, drones are already being used for myriad other uses above Canadian soil. And the technology is being developed in Canada, too.

Aeryon Labs, a developer of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) in Kitchener, Ontario, already has drones being used for a variety of different purposes, although not for mail delivery. The company develops surveillance drones, which carry cameras that record high-definition photos and videos. But they’d much rather you call them sUAS rather than drones.

"We like to call them unmanned aerial systems, since drones often has a negative connotation," Andrea Sangster, Senior Marketing Manager for Aeryon Labs, told The Right Click. "People visualize the military drones. Our systems are small, and they are created to carry a camera payload."

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Instead of carrying packages, or artillery payloads (as many people have come to associate drones with after hearing reports of their military use in countries like Pakistan), these small unmanned systems are used for much less violent purposes. They’re used by police forces in search missions, by scientists to observe animals in their habitats, and by farmers to observe their crops and collect data on growth. By using the drones instead of satellites, for example, the small drone-mounted cameras can fly under clouds which can obstruct the view, or zoom in closer to inspect specific areas.

The weight that the sUAS carries is just one of the differences between Aeryon Labs’ unmanned systems and the ones Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos says the company is planning to develop. Bezos said in his 60 Minutes interview that they were looking to develop drones that could carry up to 5lbs (about 2.27 kilograms). The surveillance drones are just designed to carry cameras, only weighing about 200 to 400 grams.

Bezos also specified that the drones being looked at by Amazon would be autonomous, while the ones currently sold by Aeryon Labs are controlled by someone on the ground with a tablet. Despite these differences, though, the same basic regulations are required to regulate the use of these drones in airspace. And what may surprise some people is that here in Canada, that regulation already exists.

"Drones have been used globally for a number of years now," Sangster said, specifying that some countries heavily regulate their use, while some other countries in Asia and South America leave the industry entirely unregulated. "It’s only the public awareness for how much they’re used that’s changed."

While the Federal Aviation Authority, which regulated U.S. airspace, won’t have regulations for unmanned aircraft use in commercial situations in place until at least 2015, businesses can apply for licenses to fly drones in Canadian airspace now. Companies need to submit an application to Transport Canada with information on who is applying, who will be flying the drone, how it will be used, when it will be flown and the conditions surrounding the flight (e.g. operational height and other key flight data). You can read more about how to apply for these licenses here.

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Private U.S. companies are unable to use drones at this time, but in certain areas, they’re already being used for public safety purposes and military uses. The regulations for these kinds of uses are very different than commercial ones, but are a barometer of the kinds of regulation that will need to be put in place for widespread use in private industry.

Here in Canada, drones have been used by public safety organizations for a couple of years now, which has helped pave the way for how Transport Canada regulates them for private enterprise. Halton Regional Police in Ontario has been using drones since 2009 in search and rescue operations, accident reconstruction and explosives removal. The Ontario Provincial Police having been using sUAS in a similar capacity, too.

"These systems are beneficial to organizations that have typically used manned aircraft, satellites or people on the ground," Sangster said. "It’s an alternative method to collecting photographs, videos and data."

One of the biggest risks posed by drones, particularly in the public eye, is the potential for spying and unwelcome observations in private spaces. But much like how cell phones have been modified in the way they’re regulated in the last decade, similar measures will have to be implemented for the use of drones. And for companies like Aeryon Labs, which focus primarily on systems used for public service and commercial uses, there’s faith that those who are using it in this stage of the evolution of drones will be adhering more closely to laws and restrictions, in order to keep using the technology.

"There’s always the risk that an individual won’t obey the law," Sangster said. "But for the people whose livelihoods depend on their use and collecting data, they’ll obey."

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