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An interview with Infinite Jib's Jeff Jackson

This story is brought to you in part by Aerobotika - UAV training and Consulting

Water Today - I know that your company is fairly involved with sensors. Can you tell me a little bit about the sensors that you use right now with your UAV's and what you are up to?

Jackson - One of our main fields of interest is radiometric data which led us to develop a craft called the Orion, the world's first multi-loader UAV capable of capturing clear radiometric data. So instead of going up and taking photographs or streaming video to the ground, the Orion captures the thermal data. So it's like capturing a large photograph with an SLR and then having software like Photoshop to be able to edit it. That had never been done before. It allowed thermographers to capture data and then have the tools to analyse every pixel that was captured in the thermal video.

Water Today - What would people use that type of thing for?

Jackson - Basically, if you are going to be using normal video which is what most people are flying on drones and UAVs today, itís great if you are working at night time or dusk, to look for a missing person for instance; so search and rescue thermal video will highlight the person on a dark background. What the Orion does is capture the information on an on-board windows computer. So our UAV's have a full running Windows 7 Suite that captures the data that comes through the Ethernet onto the computer. That data can now be edited so you can analyse and quantify the captured information . So if you want to narrow down the varying spectrums of temperature, the data is there. That's the basis of the Orion, you can take measurements of objects and compare them to other objects and understand what is happening in your process. An interesting example of this is that you can hover and look down and pick out the temperatures of the cows in a feedlot, you can isolate the temperatures and determine which cow is running a fever.

Water Today - So if an animal is sick, this mechanism device allows you to pick that up.

Jackson - Correct, and understand what their body temperatures are and if one is running a fever. Iíll give you another example, letís say you have a hydro transformer station that has a component that is hard to get to from the ground and you have to do an aerial analysis; you can take its temperature, you can take the temperature of the ground around it and compare the temperature of where it is mounted and the temperature of the actual component. Then you can go back weeks, months, or years later and do that same comparison between the base level and the object and see if there is a change in the temperature of the item. That can only be done by sensors like the Orion.

Water Today - I would think that you would need to have quite a library I guess, like you need some sort of mean average, I suppose.

Jackson - To understand what is happening to the process, thatís correct, you would. On Tuesday of next week we are going to be up at a place called Terrace Bay, Ontario which is about two hours east of Thunder Bay. We will be flying for the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to inspect a surge tower. OPG has concerns that the surge tower has insulation underneath the casing and that there is leaking on the inner tank and onto the insulation. So we are going up with the Orion for OPG to do a survey of the surge tower which is about 200 feet in the air to look for temperature differences on the cladding around it which would indicate moisture, and cooler temperatures underneath it caused by the water in the insulation. So you can look in some things like a tower or you can look into flat roofs and see if there is a leak in the insulation under the flat roof. You can tell if water has penetrated an industrial building as it would give off a different temperature reading than the ambient temperature in the surrounding area.

Water Today - Where do you see the future of the measurement industry going? I mean it sounds to me that it has an awful lot of different potential.

Jackson - Yes there is a huge potential and what we are finding is that we are getting more calls from a variety of niche markets where people want to be able to get a sense of the technology, apply it, and take readings from it. So it might be a call from an agency like NASA who wants to put something up in the air, move it around and see how it works or another one who wants to put a sensor up and move it around before they land it on a predator drone. We've got the world's first UAV-MAG, surveyor drone that enables a geologist to fly a magnetometer and look into the soil and analyse the sub-structure of the ground underneath it. So geologists could use our system, surveying companies can look at large areas that they want to survey.

Water Today - I did story a couple of years ago, about a cruise ship that got grounded in the Northern Passage. And the cruise ship was claiming that the charts on the Passage were as much as 12 kilometres off, in some cases. Is this the type of thing the Orion could do? Could you fly the Orion in incredibly cold temperatures, it doesn't sound like it's confined to line of sight at all, eh?

Jackson - Well the line of sight is determined more by other regulations and who is operating the craft, what authority they have to operate. We do operate with the US Army in Alaska so we do operate in adverse conditions as well. But for surveying work, you would use a craft called the Surveyor, not the Orion; itís typically used for terrestrial analysis, like anything on the ground, it doesnít go over water, or long coastlines. Typically it would be surveying areas of maybe 200 acres, 1000 acres, something like that; like a large open pit mine or a long stretch of highway. It would not be efficient for doing coasts. The UAV is a tool for a specific niche market. And so it's not the best tool for everything. And we always try to tell people that, you can't buy this tool and expect it to do everything for you.

Water Today - Is this a case where the future is so bright youíve got to wear shades type thing? When I talked to other UAV companies, whether they sell you UAV's or whether they design them or fly them, they all seem to say, well, whatever we are doing today, we are going to be doing something different in a year, because the cost of this gear and the know-how involved, sort of the self-driving of the thing means that we'll have to keep moving into other niches. Is that similar for you too, or do you think that because sensors are getting better, they wonít be getting any cheaper.

Jackson - The costs are going up for certain things and the costs are going down for other ones. If you look at computers, their use has completely changes since they first hit the market. The same is true of UAVs. A few years ago, everybody wanted to do surveys of golf courses. Now golf clubs are all set up with their own cheap mass-produced drones. So the uses will evolve. When computers first came out, everybody thought a computer could do everything. And then the technology got fine-tuned and PC shop popped up on every corner, selling clones. And then people eventually matured, realized that they didn't really care about megahertz and gigabytes, but more about ease-of-use and how a pc fits with their lifestyle. The drone industry will evolve where people have a totally different value-sense about what is important and what is not important.

Water Today - Would you say you sell units or more so a service? I sort of get mixed messages from the UAV industry in Canada.

Jackson - We've been building multi-loader systems for six years, selling them to professionals. What weíve found now is that, with some of the high-end sensors and applications, our customer-base does not have the skills or the hardware available to fulfil those needs. So in some cases we will do the flight ourselves like for Ontario Power Generation. We expect fully that they will purchase systems from us, but first they want to be able to see the process to make sure that itís what they want. So we will do surveys for them and then they will evaluate the technology to see whether or not they will purchase it themselves.

The scope of the sensors we put on our systems is huge. We are no longer just carrying cameras. Our complete flight systems with the sensors installed can range from $30,000 to half a million dollars, so itís a totally different niche.

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