Back in 1903, human existence was transformed beyond what anyone could have imagined when Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flight in a powered aircraft. Since that first 12–second flight, aircraft technology has evolved rapidly, giving more people access to the power of flight than ever before. Today, the biggest technological advances are in the realm of drones or UAVs – small unmanned aircraft that can be operated from the ground via a remote control.
We still can't imagine all of the advances drones will bring to our society, but so far they're already being used by farmers to improve our food supply, and Saskatoon RCMP officers even credited a drone with saving a man's life in May of this year. Perhaps we'll look back in a few years and point to the first drone flight as our second Wright brothers moment – a moment when a single piece of human innovation changed the world as we know it forever.
Drones for Everyone: The Democratic Future of Aviation
A few years ago, drone technology was limited to an elite group of researchers, developers, and perhaps a few military operators. Today, however, anyone with a bit of money to spend can take part in this major aeronautic advancement. And now, thanks to new companies specializing in the sale of UAVs and UAV parts, drones are becoming much simpler to acquire than they were in years past as well.
"Anyone can now fly a GoPro camera in the sky to film their activity, residence, vacation, sport..." says Dany Thivierge, owner of the UAV retail company Canada Drones. An IT professional by day, Thivierge operates Canada Drones out of his garage in Mississauga, Ontario, and currently ships 30 plus orders for UAVs and UAV parts every day.
Drones are also becoming more affordable these days. Through a webstore like Canada Drones, a UAV newbie could be fully equipped with a small drone and camera for a little over $1,000.
The fact that drones are so accessible does create some drawbacks, however, chief among them the issue of safety. According to a report by CBC radio's The Current, there have been several incidents this past year of drones flying too close for comfort to airplanes, and even a few drone-airplane collisions.
For Thivierge, someone who deals with many new drone operators,"there's a huge need for education in this field as common sense sometimes is not enough."
"I tell my customers to always think what would happen if the UAV was to fall," says Thivierge. "If the answer is bad things, then don't fly it there – simple enough."
"I would love to fly a drone over my girl's soccer game to record their best moments, but it's irresponsible," he says. "Crowds are to be avoided at all costs until a very safe device is invented that will protect from a crash."
Jason Toth, a professional drone pilot who has worked on Hollywood movies with the likes of John Travolta and Harrison Ford, points out that the technology that makes these drones so easy to operate can also act as a danger at the same time.
Most drones these days are able to fly in GPS mode, which Toth says is so simple that "an 80-year old grandma could pick [a drone] up and in two seconds be able to fly it." On the other hand, he says, "without those systems that are in place, to fly the drone is very dangerous and very difficult." When a GPS signal is not available, Toth says, those who are not skilled at flying the drone could easily lose control.
Toth is a director of photography and drone pilot with Revered Cinema. He started the company with his business partner Derek Heidt, a former professional snowboarder who worked alongside Warren Miller for over 15 years, in order to fill a need for high-end remote aerial photography technology in the Hollywood film industry. Toth has even taken to building his own drones to use in movie shoots, since "the stuff that's out there just isn't acceptable" for the type of shoots he works on.
So You Want to Buy a Drone?
If you'd like to become a drone pilot yourself, you have several options to consider. The biggest decision with drones usually lies with the number of rotors. As Toth explains, the smaller four-rotor quadcopters can be easier to fly and cheaper to purchase, but this affordability comes with some other potentially dangerous costs.
"The quads are cheaply made; there are only four rotors, and they're really easily accessible, but the issue is that there's no redundancy," he says.
Hexacopters and octocoptors, on the other hand, have built-in redundancies, so if one of the rotors fails, the drone can still fly using the other rotors. While more rotors won't guarantee that your drone stays in the air, explains Toth, the larger 'copters can be easier to control when you run into trouble – as long as you know what you're doing.
"You need to really understand everything to do with the drone and all its flight characteristics and operations and how to get out of a situation, and that's where people get in trouble," says Toth. "Most people only learn to fly in GPS mode," he says. In order to have real control over your drone, says Toth, you also need to be able to fly in altitude hold mode and manual mode, which means controlling the UAV yourself without relying on the autopilot controls.
More motors also create more thrust, which means that larger drones can carry more weight and have longer flight times. But bigger doesn't necessarily mean better when it comes to drones: "The more weight you're lifting," says Toth, "the more inherent danger there is too."
Learning to Fly
If learning to safely operate a UAV is something you'd like to learn, there are plenty of resources to help you along the way. Toth recommends visiting the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada at MAAC.ca, where you can find hobby groups to join and other resources to help build your skills.
Don't be fooled by the "hobby" aspect, though, as even flying a drone for fun is serious business. "People think it's a toy," says Toth, "but you're dealing with lithium batteries which are very high-powered explosives and will combust into a giant fireball and/or a smoke ball, so it's not a toy."
When learning to fly a drone, just like learning anything else in life, Toth recommends simply taking your time and having fun while you're at it. But be warned: "It is addictive, especially when you put a camera on it," he says.
The Future of the UAV Industry in Canada: The Sky's the Limit
At the rate the technology is progressing, there's no telling what the UAV industry will look like in years to come. "We're still in 1982 compared to the computer era," says Thivierge. "Give us another 5 years and you'll see things that you never thought possible." Technologies like "Object avoidance, inter-vehicular communication, swarming logic, vision processing and many more innovations are just around the corner," he says.
Toth also sees object avoidance as one of the big innovations that will be coming in the next few years, and adds that drones capable of flying fully autonomously are something else we'll be seeing in the near future. And although his specialty is film, Toth sees drones as much more than just remote-controlled flying cameras. As he explains, drones are simply advanced data collection machines. "Every industry you could ever imagine will collect data in some way, it's just a matter of how drones work within that environment." This could mean anything from collecting data for mining sites to delivering packages.
According to Toth, the future of drones will look like something out of a sci-fi novel. "There's going to be stuff five years down the road that no one's even thought of yet."