The people who design, build and use unmanned vehicles in the air, on the ground and afloat gathered in Victoria for the annual meeting of Canadian experts in this specialized field.
Conference co-ordinator Leah McGroggan said Unmanned Vehicle Systems Canada’s seventh annual conference has drawn about 250 people to the Victoria Conference Centre.
Major aerospace and defence companies like Boeing, BAE Systems, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman are represented, along with smaller contractors who supply components and controls for UVS products. There are exhibitors from the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany and Canada in the accompanying trade show, said McGroggan.
The UVS Canada organization includes people from industry, universities, the military, governments as well as interested individuals.
A group of students from Arbutus Middle School in Saanich are also at the UVS conference, demonstrating what’s possible with Lego robotics kits.
While the unmanned Predator drone used in Afghanistan to track down Taliban fighters may be the best-known UVS device, the technology has developed other applications.
“It’s not all military users,” she says.
McGroggan says UVS in wildlife research is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the new technology. A conventional helicopter will spook a caribou herd–“If there’s noise, they all bolt”–but a lightweight airborne UVS can track the animals unobtrusively.
Airborne systems operating up to 200 metres elevation with infrared sensors are also used in some regions to chase poachers without alerting them to the presence of watching law enforcement people.
Police are starting to use UVS, such as the two-pound Dragonflyer, which can go aloft and photograph a crime scene, for example.
Similar systems have applications in forest firefighting, disaster management and safety and security, according to UVS Canada.
Ian Glenn of Ottawa-based ING Engineering, which provides service and technical support for the ScanEagle drones used in Afghanistan for intelligence by Canada’s troops, says the drones have passed 10,000 hours in the air.
They fly out of Kandahar airport, which Glenn says is the busiest in the world with 1,000 more aircraft movements a day than Heathrow, the main airport for London. Maintenance crews are faced with heat up to 50 degrees C. and sandstorms.
The Canadian navy is also interested. A 45-pound video-equipped ScanEagle was catapulted off the deck of HMCS Glace Bay near Halifax in October, first time a fixed-wing aircraft was launched from a Canadian navy vessel in four decades, Glenn says. They typically operate between 1,000 and 3,000 feet elevation and are guided back to the ship and captured when wingtip hooks catch a vertical cable.
The unmanned aerial vehicle sends back live video images. “Everyone gets this great view,” says Glenn, CEO of ING.
John Porter is deputy director of business development for General Atomic of San Diego, which makes the best-known such device, the Predator, whose 66-foot wingspan is bigger than most light aircraft.
This sector of aviation has “really exploded” in the last decade, he says. “At any time, 40 of our planes are in the air.”
Civilian applications are coming but “it’s still mostly military,” says Porter. The Federal Aviation Authority and Canada’s Department of Transport haven’t decided yet on rules for operating unmanned craft in North American airspace, although a few are in use with U.S. Homeland Security to catch migrants crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. NASA also maintains a fleet at Edwards Air Force Base in California, used in fire season to provide weather information and close-in details of individual forest fires.
They are guided by ground staff at Edwards, as far as Canada, using satellite communication to control speed, elevation and direction.
“UVS Canada has been front and centre in the sector for the past eight years successfully acting as a conduit for manufacturers, government, military and academia to exchange ideas and collaborate,” the organization says.
Delegates at the conference will also consider a merger with the other organization representing the industry: the Canadian chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The plan is to create a new group called Unmanned Systems Canada.