A HUMAN PILOT TALKS UAVS, DRONE REGS AND DRONE SCHOOLS
This series is brought to you in part by Aerobotika - UAV training and Consulting
Water Today - These days people can buy just about any drone they want. And the training seems to be a bit of an issue, this is where you come in. I would you like you to tell me a little bit about your background and why you are doing what you do?
Messier - We are in the business of training professional pilots. Our aim since the beginning has been to develop the training required by drone pilots to be able to operate safely in the air space. I insist on the safety because we are initially pilots and student pilots from a flight training school that's been in operation for the past 25 years. So we come to this industry with a very strong understanding and consciousness of what security means; being in the air, sharing that airspace with airplanes and drones. Training a pilot to fly drone is kind of easy. What we are aiming at is training pilots to be able to handle all of the typical difficulties that a pilot can encounter.
For example, how you deal with losing a motor, losing a part of your control. There are safety measures to put be in place, there are safety procedures to follow, and that's what we really insist on. Yes we are kind of a different animal in this industry in that we approach drones from an airspace background, not from the typical hobby world where most of the players are in right now.
Water Today - I'd like to go down that road a little bit. If I have it right, Transport Canada has put quite few restrictions in place; you can't fly drones near a population or over say a concert venue. Yet I see footage out there, even on drone company websites where they certainly do seem to be skirting the rules. Is that something thatís common or something you have to deal with?
Messier - It's something that we have to deal with and it's something that we really insist on when training our pilots; to play by the rules and to abide by the rules. We do see lots of footage which was not taken from a legally flying drone; in other words footage that was taken too close to a crowd, too close to a built-up area, too close to an airport, too close to a lot of the elements that are prohibited by Transport Canada.
Lets do a little recap. Last November, Transport Canada issued a temporary set of regulations, to allow the use of drones for hobby purposes and for commercial purposes, in some specific situations. So there is a form to fill out that will allow you, if you qualify, to get what is called a Special Flight Operating Certificate or SFOC from Transport Canada; it's a long document to fill in, because you are requesting the authorization to fly in a specific context with a specific pilot, with a specific drone to do a specific mission or operation. Through this process, a company with a proven background is able to fly near a crowd, not over a crowd, but near a crowd. But you have to earn your credentials. I mean Transport Canada is unlikely to issue the permit on your first request. Many companies out there are taking the short route, and they are either requesting and not waiting for the answer or not requesting the permit at all. And they do the footage. And that from my perspective is a real security issue, because the regulations are not there for nothing. It's common sense basically, we are talking about a little machine, most of them coming from the hobby world without the typical security concern of a real aircraft. It's typical to say that within the manned aircraft industry, you can't tolerate anything over one incident per million hours, for example.
Water Today - Oh is that right? So if you fly an aircraft, they would expect you to fly a million hours ...
Messier - Without a glitch.
Water Today - Okay, that's neat I have never heard that before.
Messier - Well it's a ball park figure, insurance might give a higher or lower number, and Transport Canada calculates it this way. But within the industry it's kind of a given that you expect less than a glitch per million hours of operation. Whereas with drones right now, we are talking about a glitch per tens of hours or hundreds of hours.
Water Today - Okay we've covered a little bit of safety, we've covered the SFOC, we've covered that you all have a background in aviation. So let's say for instance someone runs a business in Toronto or Montreal and they are thinking about getting into the drone business. Do you find that they get into market-specifics like, I want to do crop inspections, or I want to do real estate inspections, I want to do wire inspections. Do you find that it's an industry-driven need, or is it the other way around? Is it more people getting into drones for the sake of getting in to drones and then thinking of applications or the other way around?
Messier - It's mainly two groups. We've got people forty and over. Most of them either in a business where they want to add a new tool enabling them to increase the level of service, the quality etc. And these are really industry-driven people. We have engineers coming to get the training to become basic pilots, so that they can build on that expertise as a drone pilot, to get to the second level. We've designed different levels of training ranging from entry-level pilot up to solid pilot. Then we get into the industry-specific techniques. For example, building inspections require the ability to fly vertically very cleanly. Whereas if you are flying in a farmer's field, you have to fly horizontally. So we start by building strong basic pilots and after that we build the various blocks required for them to operate in their industry.
We have to take into account that most of the industry-driven applications, usually require two individuals, one being the pilot who operates the drone and basically his aim in life is to keep the drone safe without hitting anyone and not being hit by anything. Beside him there is what we call the payload specialist, the one operating the sensors on the drone which provide a point of view that is different from human eyesight
I like to say drones have given us the ability to exploit the zero to 400 feet airspace that was basically empty before. We couldn't put anything in there. An airplane would not fly below 400 unless it's landing or taking off, a helicopter is the same thing. So that portion of the airspace was unutilized. The drone is simply the way of putting the camera, the thermal infrared camera or whatever type of sensor up in the air at the required height. And we need a specialist handling that sensor. So the drone pilot is usually only one half of the team.
Water Today - Okay so there would be a payload specialist who would handle the cameras and the sensors, and then there would be the drone pilot themselves. When we look at how people deploy these right now, do you find that in a lot of cases there are not two people and perhaps some industries think that for the most part they can get away with one person. And you seem to be pretty clear it's worth the extra time and money to have a two-man drone?
Messier - Definitely, again I am talking from a security perspective. Keeping a drone in the air safely is a full-time job. Trying to keep that bird in the air and at the same time operating the drone sensors is a lot of work.
Water Today - I could see it being a lot of work. So I get a sense that you are deeply committed to safe flying. I get a sense that you really understand that this is a security issue. You have a great background, you are set up, you are a pilot, it all seems like a really, really good initiative. Can you tell me then why the franchise approach. If I call up a university or I want to be specifically trained in a certain technology, or if I go to a college and I take my night course, and I know how to use it, what's the difference? Why are you going down the franchise road when so much learning seems to be classroom-driven as oppose to commerce- driven?
Messier - No, no. A typical training class for basic piloting is something like 60 hours of classroom training. But at least as much of flight time. Knowing in theory what to do is one thing, being able to quickly react is another; and our aim is to get our pilots to the point where, whenever there is an emergency, they mentally go through their checklist automatically. So you can learn in class, but you have to go through the drill over and over again. And that's what we are doing on the training field. We simulate emergencies, we simulate all kinds of trouble with the equipment, and we simulate operations.
Water Today - How do you get that inside the context of a franchise operator.
Messier - What we found is that we were getting calls from all over the province. For example, we are working with a mining company in northern Quebec . They looked at different drones, they've even tried a few, and they quickly found that the kind of training that they got from either the manufacturer or the retailer was basically how to operate that specific drone, where the buttons are, and what to do with it to get it up in the air. That was far from being enough, to be able to obtain an SFOC for more difficult type of work. And there were operational requirements that a vendor or a manufacturer couldn't provide training for . And that's where private training comes into the play. There is a lot more involved than just putting a drone up in the air. A drone operation starts days before the drone even takes off. It is a lot of preparation before, during and after a flight.
Water Today - So you present this as a package to an interested school I guess. If you are franchising and you go to a franchise show, do most people understand the context of drones and franchise agreements? Or are you saying, look if you already do service A and you do this as a franchise, inside a franchise operating company, you can add this to your franchise. I am trying to get a bit of how the mechanics of how your franchise concept work.
Messier - The model we are currently deploying is usually aimed at someone already in an industry. One who has a specific need for a drone as a tool. There are two ways, you can go about it , do it yourself like lots of young entrepreneurs are doing. They start up, walk through their errors, lose a few drones and hopefully they don't create any accidents. And eventually they get to the point where they find that this is not as easy as it looks.
Water Today - Oh I see so you have looked at enough situations where you think that a franchise set-up would help; you can say look, because we do this on an economy of scale, you are going to get all of the right manuals, you are going to get the right teaching, the right training, the right warranties, the right drones. Is that sort of how you see it?
Messier - That's exactly it. We are taking 25 years of flying experience, and adapting that to the drone industry, not taking the drone as a toy but as a tool. We're handling drones, we are not talking about small toys. We are talking about...
Water Today - Yeah some of these things are huge.
Messier - Yes, they are a bit bigger than any toy that you can purchase. And we are handling them, we're maintaining them, we are operating them with the same discipline that we would use flying a personal or commercial aircraft. And we have operating procedures, we have security measures. We have accountability for different roles into the business. For example, whenever there is a pilot deployed, there has to be an operation director somewhere knowing what the pilot is doing, making sure that the security is handled properly and making sure the permits are obtained. If we are flying over someone's property ,you still need authorization to fly over.
Water Today - So you have to follow the right flight plans, you have...
Messier - There is a lot of preparation and documentations to do things properly.
Water Today - So you are coming at it from the service side. You are saying, look because we are doing this day in and day out, we can provide a more complete experience. We know what you are up against, we know the industries you are in. This is what you have to do and so it just comes down to you guys have way more experience, and the person coming into the business doesn't. And so you essentially make the learning curve a lot shorter, is what I'm understanding?
Messier - Exactly, shorter and with an understanding of what the Canadian Aviation Rules (CAR) are about. The problem with drones or UAV's is that, most of the final regulations are still to be written. So we have to fall back on what is known under Transport Canada, and if we handle the UAV as an aircraft, we understand what the CARS are saying, if we understand what the CARS are there for, and apply that with the right addition or whatever is required, for UAV, then it's a lot easier for anyone flying it. Because we are within the known world, we are not trying to push rules to their limit, we are trying to stay within the rules, and understand what the rules were there for initially and abide by them.