Flight school: How drones are learning new tricks

Flight school: How drones are learning new tricks

Developers of unmanned aerial vehicles are putting their latest inventions to the test at a new R&D centre near Ottawa.

This year’s wildfire season has already been the most destructive on record in Canada. More than 5,100 fires have raged across all 13 provinces and territories, burning over 13 million hectares. Even before the recent evacuation of Yellowknife, 156,000 households had been forced to flee their homes.

“When fire hits some of these communities, people don’t have a lot of time — sometimes only minutes. And often, they have only one way out,” says Miro Cernetig, co-founder of SkyScout Ai, a brand new company from Vancouver that is developing an early-warning system for wildfires that involves drones, satellite imagery and machine learning. “It’s crucial to get ahead of these fires, but sometimes they aren’t even detected for hours.”

SkyScout will focus its efforts on built-up areas that are at risk due to their proximity to forests. The company plans for its drones to patrol these zones from the air, collecting thermal data from the ground and the tree canopy, and using that info to map hotspots and send real-time alerts about possible conflagrations to the fire service in that area.

Cerntig says the technology could help crews respond to wildfires more quickly. “Even stopping one would be huge.”

Being thrust onto the frontlines of Canada’s increasingly fraught battle against wildfires is a sign of how far drones have come in the past few years. They’re no longer just playthings for enthusiasts and floating camera platforms for producing pretty YouTube videos. Uncrewed aerial vehicles, as they’re officially known, have become a workforce in the skies.


Worker drones

The list of tasks entrusted to commercial drones goes well beyond helping to gauge the spread and speed of wildfires. These vehicles can also help map and re-seed burnt forests. They are now regularly used to inspect bridges and railways, storage tanks and wind turbines. They have delivered medical supplies to remote communities. And paramedics have even used drones to fly automated defibrillators to the site of cardiac arrests.

There are gimmicky uses, such as delivering Domino’s pizzas in New Zealand. And there are cool ones too, like the U.S. non-profit that assesses whales’ health by flying drones into the spray ejected from their blowholes to sample mucus. (The mucus-collector’s name: SnotBot.)

Commercial drone sales are expected to leap from US$18.6 billion this year to US$40.7 billion by 2026, according to research group MarketsandMarkets. To help Canadian companies keep pace, Area X.O, a 1,900-acre R&D hub for next-gen tech near Ottawa, opened the Drone and Advanced Robotic Testing and Training Zone (DARTT) in late June. The first facility of its kind in Canada, DARTT is a high-tech obstacle course designed to test cutting-edge autonomous ground and air vehicles. With its own air traffic control system and a large safety net to test drone-failure scenarios, it is an ideal launching pad for the future.

“There’s more and more potential for innovation around drones and ground robots,” says Michael Tremblay, CEO of Invest Ottawa, which runs Area X.O. “We really needed a complex where everyone — industry, regulators and academia — could go to work on projects together.”

Area X.O teamed up with Ottawa-based InDro Robotics, a company with nearly a decade of industry experience, to design DARTT. InDro received extensive input from Transport Canada and air traffic control operator NAV CANADA during the process. DARTT is also the only site of its kind in Canada to integrate U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology criteria, making it the one place for uncertified pilots to develop high-level skills. Prototype drones can be tested to see how they fly complex routes, navigate obstacles, cope with magnetic interference and withstand all the inclement weather the Ottawa region can provide.

“At DARTT, we can put drones through multiple tests to ensure the equipment and pilot are ready,” says Philip Reece, InDro president and CEO.

SkyScout was one of the first developers to show up. The company headed to Ottawa in late July to assess the site and will return in early fall for a series of full test runs. If successful, Cernetig says he and his colleagues will move on to more expansive flights in B.C’s Okanagan Valley; they hope to launch SkyScout’s product commercially next year. “DARTT is ideal for us. There’s so much expertise on site and it’s also of a size that allows us to deploy fully. We wouldn’t be able to develop our tech as fast as we are without a place like this.”



Scaling new heights

The design of drones is also becoming more sophisticated, enabling them to take on more functions. Hamilton’s Skygauge Robotics specializes in inspections of tall industrial infrastructure, such as ships and storage tanks. Unlike other drones that can tip around haphazardly when they move, the Skygauge model has one-of-a-kind maneuverability, due to tilting rotors that automatically adjust to the wind. This keeps the frame steady and allows attached probes to keep flush with any surface, vertical or curved, and at any angle. Eight motors provide enough force to hold a sensor firmly and to conduct simple labour, such as sanding and painting.

“The system is designed to mimic the human hand,” says CEO Maksym Korol. “It’s not just built for touching and pushing and pulling. It can really interact with the physical environment.”

Skygauge became publicly available in June, but the company has been working with early-adopter customers since last year. Earlier this year, it wrapped up a $1-million contract with Transport Canada that saw the drone put through its paces across the country. The vehicle endured temperatures of minus-37 degrees Celsius to inspect the thickness of beams on a steel railway bridge in Churchill, Man., and conducted ultrasound tests to map corrosion on the hull of a docked ferry in Port Saint John, B.C. “We looked for tasks that were hard to reach, but easy to do,” says Korol. “Until now, inspectors had to set up a scaffold or use ropes to climb up, just to touch the wall with a sensor. Scaffolding takes a week to set up and can cost over $30,000. But we can be up in the air in 15 minutes. It reduces time and cost for this sort of industrial work. And it’s also far less dangerous because the inspectors stay on the ground. We’ll help save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of injuries each year.”


Crowd control

It’s clear drones will have an increasingly great impact on daily life. Drone delivery has been successful in remote and rural areas, but the use of these vehicles in urban areas has been limited to small-scale projects from deep-pocketed companies like Amazon and Walmart. The biggest challenge going forward will be to manage a more democratized and crowded airspace.

“Cities have a lot of unknown and misunderstood qualities to their airspace,” says Bashir Khan, CEO of AirMatrix, a Toronto-based company that creates 3D maps to help bring order to the skies. “This ranges from microweather to electromagnetic interference, changing or inaccurate GPS signals, uplink and downlink issues and a plethora of other variables.”

AirMatrix tries to capture these sorts of factors in its digital maps, which power aerial traffic software for drones that allows users to fly safely. Its system collects real-time data so that operators can have total situational awareness as their vehicles soar above congested streets and around skyscrapers.

“Our software is precise down to the last millimetre,” claims Khan.

AirMatrix’s technology has been used to support drone operations in Waterloo and Calgary up to 400 feet, the highest altitude allowed without clearance from Transport Canada. In May, AirMatrix received funding from the National Research Council of Canada to test operations up to 1,000 feet.

Results from these tests will help global regulators establish standards for the future. In anticipation, Bashir says AirMatrix has already mapped 15 other cities around the world. “I don’t know if it was foresight or cojones, but I’m glad we did it. We’re looking at a revolution in the skies.”

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Photography: Courtesy of Skygauge