Drone delivery: Why one Ottawa man brought a robot to the rebels in the midst of the Libyan civil war

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During the height of the Libyan revolution in 2011, an Ottawa man willingly docked on the shore of Misrata, a city under fire by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s artillery.

He was there to deliver an unmanned aerial vehicle to help keep Libyan rebels safe.

Charles Barlow, president of Ottawa-based private security firm Zariba Security Corp., hand-delivered an Ontario-made drone with a camera attached so the rebels could monitor the Libyan dictator’s troops from above.

The move was made possible when Canada’s government recognized the National Transitional Council of Libya as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, meaning Canadian companies could legally do business with them.

And when the NTC contacted Canada to ask for help, federal officials matched the rebels with robotic technology developed in Waterloo, Ont. by Aeryon Labs Inc.

Mr. Barlow had been conducting training for Aeryon customers using the latter’s Scout microdrone, which the NTC purchased.

That’s why Mr. Barlow, a former Canadian soldier, travelled to Libya to train rebels in an unstable war zone on the other side of the earth.

He shared his story with OBJ about what it was like to be Ottawa’s drone dealer, and why he returned to Libya earlier this year:

 

"The NTC guys contacted us and said, “We have a great need for imagery. We have areas under our control that are surrounded by Gadhafi  forces and the only way we can find out where they are is to drive down the road until someone is shooting at us.”

We’d been working with the (Aeryon) Scout for a couple of years, and that fit the bill perfectly. We got some funding and flew in June to Malta (an island nation in the Mediterranean Sea).

In Malta, I got on an old tuna fishing boat owned by the NTC. It was about 36 hours or so on the boat from Malta. At that time, Misrata was surrounded on three sides by Gadhafi forces that were shelling the town with heavy artillery and rockets. The ocean was the fourth side. They had done a tremendous amount of damage.

There was a need for training (on the Scout drone). I used to be in the military and I’ve been overseas a bunch of times, but I’d always promised myself and my family I wouldn’t do anything like that again, and then this happened. (When I arrived) I thought, ‘I’m back.’

The thing about the Scout is that it was designed to be very simple to fly. You don’t need to see it to fly it, you basically fly it off a computer tablet. It’s very small; it’s about the same weight as a seagull so if it falls, it won’t do damage.

We went out to the airfield at the Misrata airport, which was abandoned at the time, to give the rebels some flight training. We were flying the machine out there and we started getting shelled. They didn’t hit us, but the shells landed about a kilometre away. Then we, of course, went to a different place and did some more flight training.

One of the (rebels) ran the local Honda dealership before the war started. The only reason he was fighting was because (Gadhafi’s forces) had come into town and destroyed the centre of the city. Of all the rebels I saw, there wasn’t one professional fighter in the group. They were just regular folks that were trying to kick out a foe that would have literally killed them all if they’d had the chance. I never saw one foreigner or thug or gunman in the group. They were regular citizens that had taken up arms without being particularly good at it, because they had no choice.

(I was in a situation where) I could leave Misrata in two days or wait until the boat came back, which could have been a week or never because it was wartime. After a couple of days of training, I got on the boat and left.

They used (the drone) for about three months until the end of the war, I know that for sure. Basically, they used it to fly out and find where the Gadhafi forces were so they didn’t end up losing people just driving down the roads. I’m sure it saved some lives.

I went back to Libya about a month ago. Now that the government is in place, they’re looking at getting some (drones) for the police and for the national oil company as well. You recall what happened in Algeria where a group of terrorists took over an oil facility? That’s the sort of thing they want the system for. I’m sure they’re going to buy some. It takes our own government a year or two to procure anything, so it’ll certainly take some time.

I think you’re going to see a lot more robotics involved in all kinds of aspects of life, and Canadians are one of the great leaders in the small UAV space."

SIDEBAR: DATA FUSION

Charles Barlow recently co-founded a local company called FocalRECON, which develops software that fuses data from various unmanned aerial vehicles.

With just one UAV, it’s relatively easy to monitor video and sensor content, Mr. Barlow said. With a large fleet, however, much of the data is wasted if it isn’t pulled together and analyzed.

Founded in 2012, FocalRECON’s software collects and consolidates maintenance and health data from each UAV after a flight, combining the data with work orders to warn when a unit requires repair.