By Dorothy Dobbie (photo by MicroPilot)
Driving out in the country these days is a bit like driving into the future, at least here in Manitoba. It seems that every second field has a small plane buzzing just above the treetops like a lot of oversized insects.
These busy machines are drones, or what the techies prefer to call UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).
Right now, these airborne machines are basically surveillance craft, taking pictures and collecting data to tell farmers how their crops or livestock are doing. At the border, they are patrolling for illegal crossings from Canada to the U.S.
Over the last few years, the interest in drones and the savings that can accrue to the farmers who buy one has burgeoned. A small surveillance plane, equipped with still and/or video cameras, can retail for about $7,000 or even less.
In Manitoba, two companies offering unique systems have been developed. One is the CropCam system built in Stony Mountain. MicroPilot, owned by Howard Loewen (the son of Bill Loewen who created Comcheq and Telpay), is now one of the world leaders in the development of lightweight autopilots as well as a number of spinoff systems that can be customized to meet client needs, and an autopilot for helicopters.
Howard Loewen started his company back in the nineties as a natural progression from his hobby building and flying model airplanes. The company now has sales in 70 countries around the world.
The other Manitoba company is Challis Heliplane, operating in the RM of Cartier, Elie. Challis aims to produce the fastest rotocraft in the world, with speeds exceeding 300 mph. Owned and developed by certified commercial helicopter pilot, Doug Challis, the company offers a number of different models ranging from 540 pounds to 1,200 pounds. The smaller heliplanes have a lower altitude range and can carry cameras for HD videos for both day and night filming.
There are many uses for the unmanned vehicles. The United States used small drones in its war in Iraq and other countries. Newer technologies are improving the ability to achieve a more targeted warfare and avoid civilian collateral damage in highly populated areas.
Military uses are one thing. The big future is in commercial UAVs.
Currently, barriers to more widespread use of small, hand-launched UAVs include power limitations which reduce the range for vehicles with larger payloads. But many other obstacles are being dealt with through regulation (Canada is ahead of the U.S. here and Europe is ahead of us both). These issues include a crowded airspace and low-altitude competition with recreational craft; the competency, training and licensed operation of these vehicles which can now be managed through a cellphone; and a host of privacy and other concerns.
These other concerns may be prompted by stories that retailers such as Walmart are already building sensors into all their products which could conceivably be linked to small UAVs to deliver and track goods. Google wants drones to deliver products to homes and has been testing mechanisms to do this in Australia since 2012. Creative thinkers are even suggesting that sensors could be installed in humans so drones could keep track of us.
On the plus side, this exciting technology opens up a lot of doors. There will potentially be jobs in engineering as new machines capable of new applications come on line. There are thousands of jobs for operators who will soon require licences to control a UAV – and with good reason. There have been incidents recently where unskilled operators have crashed into people and property, and even put commercial aircraft at risk.
One of the new applications that will probably soon make an appearance here is crop dusting. UAVs are not currently being used in this way in Canada, at least not officially, due to concerns about pesticide drift, payload capacities and battery life of the flying systems. But the answers to those concerns are not far away. Crop dusting is happening in countries such as Japan and China. Some people see “bot swarms” in the future taking over the job not just of spraying crops, but also seeding and harvesting. (Some farmers in Manitoba are apparently already using UAVs to do their seeding.)
While UAVs are used for everything from military purposes to firefighting, law enforcement (the Winnipeg police force has been using them for two years), weather observation, search and rescue, pipeline monitoring, forest and wildlife management and even filmmaking, it is predicted that about 80 per cent of the activity will be for agricultural purposes. UAVs can send back critical information about the condition of a food crop in just a few hours where obtaining such information would have required days or even weeks and much manpower previously.
Moreover, a farmer can target pesticides to specific areas of concern, wiping out problems before they get away and reducing the overall amount of chemical being laid down. There is excitement, too, about the potential for managing livestock using these systems.
Our Manitoba location has a lot to recommend it for companies producing such systems. Factors generally considered as negative – high wind speeds and sub-zero temperatures – make great testing and proving grounds for new air-bound technologies. Stay tuned. There will be a lot more to say on this subject.