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Eye in the sky: Red Deer business looks to capitalize on commercial uses for drones

With six propellers and weighing a hefty 18 pounds (eight kg), it’s immediately evident that the drone rising from the field on Red Deer’s northeastern outskirts isn’t your typical hobby shop offering. A GPS sensor sits atop the unit, a 24-megapixel camera is attached to a three-axis gimbal below, and three men oversee its operation: Shaun McLaren serving as pilot, Trevor Praud controlling the camera and Jeff Giesbrecht acting as spotter.

With six propellers and weighing a hefty 18 pounds (eight kg), it’s immediately evident that the drone rising from the field on Red Deer’s northeastern outskirts isn’t your typical hobby shop offering.

A GPS sensor sits atop the unit, a 24-megapixel camera is attached to a three-axis gimbal below, and three men oversee its operation: Shaun McLaren serving as pilot, Trevor Praud controlling the camera and Jeff Giesbrecht acting as spotter.

The three men are partners in Alberta Aerial Imaging and Mapping, a Red Deer business that’s seeking to capitalize on the commercial applications of drones — or as they prefer to call them, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“It’s definitely picking up and it’s going to get big in the near future,” said Praud of the demand for UAV services.

Obvious uses include photos and video of subjects like farmyards, homes and even wedding parties. Mount an infrared camera on a UAV, and it provides a way to scout farm crops for evidence of disease; switch to a thermal imaging camera, and it can help firefighters detect hot spots in the aftermath of a blaze, or assist search and rescue personnel in locating missing people.

McLaren, who’s worked in environmental drilling for the past decade, is excited about the potential for 3D mapping to facilitate spill assessments. Inspections of infrastructure like power lines and bridges could also be conducted with UAVs, he said.

Praud, who is an IT specialist, listed flood management, municipal planning, disaster response and insurance surveying as other applications.

Giesbrecht, who also operates Red Deer’s Tri-West Security, thinks a UAV with thermal imaging capabilities could be a useful tool for the security industry.

“It would be a huge bonus for a security guard to know what’s out there in the dark, especially with construction sites,” he said.

It was this potential that led Giesbrecht to McLaren and Praud. Soon after, he decided to invest in their fledgling business.

Longtime UAV enthusiasts, McLaren and Praud had been pondering the jump from recreational to commercial flying for some time. They decided to take that step last fall.

Alberta Aerial’s fleet currently consists of six UAVs: three hexacopters and one quadcopter. It also operates fixed-wing aircraft.

High-end commercial UAVs can cost as much as $70,000, but their capabilities are impressive.

“I’ve seen people flying as far as 50 km away,” said Praud, describing how operators can use “first-person view” goggles to fly using their UAV’s camera image.

As far as vertical distance is concerned, the sky is literally the limit.

“I watched a video of a guy taking off at the base camp of Everest,” said McLaren, adding that UAVs can ascend past the point of visibility.

However, commercial operators never test the limits of their equipment, he stressed. Transport Canada regulations typically restrict UAVs to a 90-metre ceiling and require that they remain in clear view of their operators.

Alberta Aerial is insured and goes through a checklist of potential hazards before sending its units aloft, said Giesbrecht. The locations of airports, power lines and bystanders are all considered.

He, McLaren and Praud are conscious of the public’s perception of UAVs, noting that many people worry about being spied upon or otherwise affected by the aircraft. Some concerns are justified, but these typically relate to untrained users who don’t follow safety protocols.

“Anybody can go to a hobby shop and pick up a toy and then fly irresponsibly,” noted Praud.

Additional information about Alberta Aerial and its UAV services can be found online at www.aaim.ca.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com