Drone industry gaining altitude: Experts say Ottawa can play role in expanding their commercial

When Ian Glenn was in charge of the Canadian army’s unmanned aerial vehicle program nearly two decades ago, drones were strictly the domain of the military.

Remote-controlled planes and helicopters were used for surveillance purposes or to drop bombs in areas considered too dangerous or inaccessible for regular fighter jets. But as with a host of other advanced technologies, it was only a matter of time before businesses began to realize pilotless aircraft had money-making potential as well.

Mr. Glenn, the CEO of Orleans-based drone manufacturer ING Robotic Aviation, says UAVs have moved from the realm of science fiction to the mainstream. And he believes Ottawa can play a key role in keeping Canada at the forefront of the emerging drone industry.

“There’s lots of opportunity,” says Mr. Glenn, who also founded Unmanned Systems Canada, a national not-for-profit industry group. 

“Anyone who’s doing market assessments of the sector will tell you this market is … (on a path of) exponential growth. With the talent base that we have here, the resources we have available to us and the level of innovation that we’re able to achieve, there is no reason why Canada – and Ottawa in particular – cannot be a leader in this.”

From helicopters as small as your hand to planes as large as a Boeing 737, drones are gaining a devoted following among commercial users and hobbyists alike. 

Maker Space North hosted its first event devoted to UAVs, Ottawa Drone Fest2015, this summer. The one-day gathering offered races and flying lessons and attracted about 450 participants, including plenty of kids.

The turnout “shocked” head organizer Justin Tessier, who was expecting closer to 150 people. Mr. Tessier, who runs a small manufacturing company out of the maker space, says the event was designed to show the public that drones aren’t “shady and shifty” and have moved far beyond their initial military purpose.

“Any time there’s a new technology, there’s always that sort of thing,” he says. “It’s not like they’re breaking ground or anything. It’s a (remote-controlled) plane – they’ve been around since the ’70s. Yet as soon as you give it a sinister name … you create this new category for it, when in actuality it’s a natural progression from what we’ve all seen growing up.”

As drones become safer, cheaper and more accurate, their commercial applications will only continue to grow, advocates argue. 

Clients around the world use ING Robotic’s vehicles to hover close to infrastructure such as power lines, flare stacks, windmills and pipelines to perform inspections that previously would have required workers to climb on equipment. 

The east-end firm, which employs about 20 people, also works with governments, the military and law enforcement agencies on tasks from tracking illegal drugs to surveying wildlife. The vehicles’ ability to fly close to the earth makes them valuable 3D mapping tools as well.

But it was online retail giant Amazon’s announcement that it was testing UAVs for door-to-door deliveries that really opened the public’s eyes to their commercial potential, Mr. Glenn says.

“People went, ‘Hey, wait. It’s not all about spy drones and killer drones.’”

Currently, drones are almost always controlled by operators who remain within sight of the crafts. Mr. Tessier calls automated UAVs that can swoop across the sky carrying packages, taking photographs or inspecting crops the “Holy Grail” of drone technology.

“The big push is automation,” he says. “That’s the direction everything seems to be going in.”

However, the image of an airspace teaming with unmanned planes and helicopters has the potential to generate backlash among citizens and lawmakers, some observers say. 

“For all the love that’s being shown for drones, I think there’s also going to be sort of the counterpunch as well, where people will be wondering do they have a place and what are the limits,” says Michael Mulvey, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.

The marketing expert says a drone boom could spark questions about the aircraft’s safety as well as fears that UAVs will be used to invade privacy – for example, an unscrupulous company hovering a camera-equipped helicopter over a competitor’s plant in an attempt at corporate espionage.

“I think it’s a very legitimate concern,” he adds. “The dilemma there is that often this sort of nefarious use of these technologies are one step ahead of the legislation. Perhaps the best business opportunity is to become a lawyer with expertise in this area. It’s going to be busy for a while.”

Canada is a leader in small-scale commercial drone use because it already has a well-developed system of rules to govern UAVs, says Diana Cooper, who heads the unmanned aerial systems and robotics practice group at local law firm LaBarge Weinstein LLP. 

Ms. Cooper says those rules, combined with current privacy laws, make for a relatively robust regulatory framework.

“I would say we have a pretty good system in place compared to a lot of other countries,” she says. “The fact that Canada has a fairly mature industry is encouraging. I’m hopeful that … we’re going to see the industry continue to grow.”

Transport Canada announced in May it was developing new regulations for UAVs, including new flight rules and minimum age limits. 

Currently, recreational users of drones that weigh less than 35 kilograms don’t need permission to fly but must stay away from certain areas such as airports and busy streets. 

Commercial operators of UAVs weighing 25 kilograms or more require a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada and have to follow certain conditions. Each certificate is negotiated on a case-by-case basis and must be renewed after a set period of time. 

But critics say the current regulations stunt drones’ commercial growth potential by requiring pilots to be able to see the devices at all times or be in contact with someone who can.

Only a couple of exemptions were granted last year, Ms. Cooper says. But line-of-sight rules will loosen up in the near future as drones gain in popularity and sophistication, she predicts. 

Still, the changes can’t come soon enough for Mr. Glenn, who says other nations such as the United States are quickly moving to adapt their regulations to a wider range of commercial purposes.

“Canada is absolutely losing its leadership role,” he says. “Beyond-visual line of sight is the next thing that Canada needs to lead on.”

When it does, the capital region should be well-positioned to surge to the forefront of UAV technology, local observers say. 

“I think Ottawa has massive potential in this area,” Mr. Mulvey says. “Ottawa has a rich history of network technology and Wi-Fi technology and those scientists and engineers, they still live here.”

Ottawa native Alex Mitchell, a PhD student at the Queen’s School of Business who has studied the UAV phenomenon, says hubs such as Maker Space North and the innovation centre slated to open at Bayview Yards in 2016 are the perfect breeding ground for breakthroughs in fast-evolving fields such as drone innovation.

“Initiatives like that I think are great,” he says. “I think that brings the right kind of people together that have these skill sets. That’s where you get this grassroots commercial activity coming from.”

Mr. Glenn agrees, saying the innovation centre will only add to the city’s already strong foundation in the industry.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing that I see as being useful to me as a manufacturer,” he says. “Drones take all different kinds of technologies to make work.”