Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Small Alberta community is the latest testing centre for drones

The surveillance society marches (or flies) on. Of course, drones in Canada will only be used for "peaceful" purposes. As reported by John Cotter of The Canadian Press, July 10, 2012:

FOREMOST, Alta. - A plan to transform a remote southeastern Alberta community into a world centre for testing commercial drone aircraft is getting off the ground.

Transport Canada has given the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems permission to apply for restricted airspace around Foremost to fly small planes, helicopters and possibly blimps from an airfield outside the village.

Bill Werny, a spokesman for the federally licensed non-profit company, believes cordoning off part of the sky for testing commercial drones would be a first in Canada. The plan is to attract corporations willing to pay to train operators and safely test-fly machines that could be as small as a laptop computer or as large as an ultralight.

"This will ultimately lead to the commercialization of unmanned vehicles in Canada," said Werny, a retired Canadian Air Force colonel.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly being used by countries around the world for surveillance patrols and in some cases as weapons. Missile-firing U.S. Air Force Predator drones have been used to kill Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Now the aerospace industry is looking at the commercial market for a cheap, safe alternative to piloted aircraft for peaceful tasks such as monitoring oil pipelines, wildfires, crops, insect pest infestations and ice floes or in police search operations.

The challenge is to find uncongested airspace to safely test commercial drones.

That's one of the selling points of the Foremost facility, which includes a paved air strip, hangar and control buildings.

There is little air traffic in southeastern Alberta, the land is very flat and the weather is clear more than 300 days a year. Very few people live in the area, which lessens the chance of a drone injuring someone if there were a crash.

The centre would act as host to corporations that contracted to use the facility under the eye of federal regulators.

"We are the catalyst behind it, but Transport Canada is going to be controlling how we conduct business," Werny said.

The centre is also working with Transport Canada and Nav Canada on what area the restricted airspace would cover, he said. Operators want an area big enough for flights that go beyond the line of sight of an operator remotely flying a drone.

The centre expects Transport Canada approval by the fall. Commercial operations could begin by next year.

Alberta hopes a testing facility would bolster and diversify the economy of the region, which largely relies on agriculture...

...The Alberta fund contributed a one-time $3-million grant a few years ago to help the fledgling operation get started. The federal government contributed $1 million that allowed the centre to purchase a catapult device to launch drones.

Like busy pilots in a cockpit, Werny and his colleagues must multi-task if the Foremost testing and training facility is to really fly. That means marketing the facility to get corporations to sign contracts.

The plan is to use the restricted civilian airspace zone as a selling point this November at the Unmanned Systems Canada convention in Ottawa, where corporations from around the world will be gathering to talk drones.

The theme of the convention is how companies involved in military unmanned aircraft can make the transition to civil and commercial markets.

Werny said officials will also be attending industry conventions in Las Vegas and Halifax to promote Foremost.

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