Ahead of the Amazon curve: Canadian companies and the drone revolution

Unmanned aerial vehicles will transform industries—if we can get past our fear of them


(Illustration: Chris Gash)

Alaskans are accustomed to winter storms, but this one was a doozy: it shut down all sea traffic and left the town of Nome without sufficient fuel to make it through the winter. A fuel tanker was dispatched from Vladivostok, Russia, to provide relief to the isolated community, but thick sheets of ice stood between the ship and Nome’s 3,500 residents. As the tanker wound its way through the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea, a Coast Guard icebreaker led the way, guided by a tiny flying robot small enough to fit into a backpack. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—better known as a drone—was relaying 3D maps of the ice conditions to the two ships, as well as to researchers at the University of Alaska, so they could look for ridges in the ice that might rupture a hull.

This drone-led rescue operation happened in 2011. But it wasn’t until Jeff Bezos mused late last year about a fleet of Amazon robots shuttling packages from warehouses to doorsteps that most of the world first imagined UAVs as part of daily life. And while delivery drones are still far off, UAVs are already being used for an array of purposes, allowing businesses and governments to do dull, dirty and dangerous work cheaply.

The UAV used in Alaska was the creation of Aeryon Labs, a Waterloo, Ont.-based company that manufactures small unmanned aircraft. “We design systems for the backpack, the soldier, the trunk of the police car,” says Dave Kroetsch, Aeryon’s president and CEO. BP uses Aeryon products to monitor oil spills, for example, while the Ontario Provincial Police surveys fatal accidents with the help of Aeryon drones.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits the commercial use of UAVs. But in Canada, operators can apply for special licences. As governments firm up regulations concerning drones, the technology is poised to transform industries as diverse as filmmaking, real-estate photography and mining exploration. A recent report by BI Intelligence estimates that commercial UAVs will represent around US$12 billion in global sales over the next decade.

Because most UAVs are essentially flying cameras hooked up to powerful computers, they are especially useful for those who need to process large amounts of visual data. Many observers expect large-scale agriculture to be one of the first industries to embrace the technology. Already, a handful of viticulturists in the Okanagan and Niagara regions are using drones equipped with infrared sensors to monitor the water, chlorophyll and sugar content of grapes from the sky instead of picking samples in the field. Drones also would be an asset to anyone operating in dangerous or hard-to-access areas, such as the Canadian North. GroundTruth Exploration, for one, is pioneering the use of UAVs for aerial surveillance as it explores for gold deposits in the Yukon, while companies such as Enbridge and TransCanada are experimenting with UAVs to monitor pipelines for fractures and leaks.

Then there are uses you’d never imagine. Kroetsch says officials from one Caribbean island have approached Aeryon about using a drone as a hot-garbage detector. The country’s dumps, located within cities, have a tendency to catch fire. “You can take a UAV, put a thermal camera on the bottom, fly it around your garbage dump, look for hot spots and hose them down before they start a fire,” says Kroetsch. “That’s definitely not something we thought of when we were developing the product.”

Entrepreneurs will find many other applications, especially in providing drone services. For example, farmers who want the advanced analytics that UAVs can deliver aren’t likely to buy the vehicles themselves. Instead, they’ll hire a company with the requisite equipment and knowledge to fly over their fields and analyze the data. Some companies are already leveraging their expertise in older technologies to tap this new field. Applanix, a Canadian firm that creates sophisticated mapping systems for UAVs, began by making similar systems for unmanned land-based vehicles.

Today, the main barrier to commercial adoption of drones is public perception. In the minds of most people, drones drop bombs. Doug Long, strategic marketing director at Applanix, says the drone industry’s challenge is to persuade people that “an unmanned aerial system is doing exactly what’s been done for years. It’s just smaller, lighter, faster, cheaper and more efficient.”