DRONES MORE THAN JUST COOL
All about sensors
An interview with Skypapi's Daniel Helc
This story is brought to you in part by Aerobotika - UAV training and Consulting
Water Today: Daniel my understanding from your website is that Skypapi mostly does urban shoots . I guess that would be the best way to put it. You are not in a rural environment, so you would deal everyday with rules and regulations, I would think in regards to UAV's. Is that about right?
Helc: That's correct, yes. But we do a mix of both and lately it’s more rural than urban I would say. We’ve gone from a photo-shoot base to more of a mission base. So we are getting involved with different industries to utilize drones for different purposes.
Water Today: That's exactly what I wanted to talk about. Can you tell me about the industries that you are working in now and then if possible perhaps you could give me a bit of a window on the future of drones and where they'd go commercially.
Helc: We are now developing different missions in regards to the mining industry. So there are different profiles; for instance we have the flying sensors, so air quality sensors around mines inside and outside. And then there is a whole new profile with regards to photogrammetry where we are now using survey equipment . Surveying equipment is becoming more compact so we can now attach the drone and fly with survey equipment.
Water Today: That's interesting; can you tell me what photogrammetry is?
Helc: Well it's in short it refers to survey shoots. So you would take video shots of a particular area of interests and then analyse the data in many different ways. Essentially you scan the area and then you analyse the data, and you analyse the changes over certain periods of times.
Water Today: And it's called photogrammetry is it?
Water Today: Okay and this is the idea, you are taking pictures of rocks or...
Helc: Rocks, rocks formation, excavation areas, stockpiles, that kind of stuff.
Water Today: Okay so you see the future of drone or UAV technology having quite a bit to do with surveying resource extractions, this type of thing. Would that be correct?
Helc: That's correct, yes.
Water Today: Okay, and tell me a little bit about how you communicate with the drone; my understanding of mines is you get in an elevator, go down X number of feet, and then you are in essentially in caves. Do you communicate from a handset unit to the UAV from the surface, or do you go down with it and it’s tethered? Can you tell me a little bit about how the process works?
Helc: Well we actually haven’t sent the unit in the mines yet. What we send out are the sensors units. Because of the way our system is set up the actual flying copters don't go in the mines. They’re controlled by 2.4 gigahertz VHF communications, so there has to be line of sight. It won’t work the way we are currently equipped. The radio has to always be in communication with the unit.
When we mention mines inside, it's all about the sensors that we provide. That's essentially how we actually started using all these ideas about drones. We did develop the sensors so that was one of our business specialties. And then we started getting more and more requests for usage of these sensors for investigation purposes. So we could have put it on a plane but we decided to try it with drones, because now our electronics are getting smaller and smaller. So this was very interesting option to try out. So essentially then the investigation unit would send the drones flying over certain areas and then check for air quality controls. That's how we started with these sensors.
Water Today: When you talk about sensors and air quality control, I guess then the question would be, what are the sensors that you are using now, what do they detect? And say five, ten years from now, what sensors could detect? Would there be a big difference, or has the sensor technology kind of come as far as it can as far as you are concerned?
Helc: The components of the sensors we carry typically include nitrous oxide, nitrous dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide; and then particle measuring sensors which are optical particle sensors. And then we measure temperature, air pressure, humidity and that kind of stuff.
In addition there are chemical sensors. So for instance, flammable gases like an ethane, methane, butane, propane are measured with our special kinds of sensors as well.
The way forward is based on technology sensors improving and getting smaller, enabling us to do quick replacements of our units. And we can start using these flammable gas sensors for pipeline control and pipeline leak monitoring. This is a one of the new areas where missions are expanding for drones.
Environmental engineering is also a key area we are involved with, particularly air quality sensors for impact assessments. What they do currently is measure exhaust at the source, and then they do a sort of simulated modelling based on certain weather conditions. Now that we can fly these sensors, they can be used to confirm their simulations, using real time data as confirmation.
Water Today: When you talk about pipelines, most of the people in Canada are aware of the pipeline breaks and the leaks and this sort of thing. Is this the type of thing where you could deploy your technologies and say, look this pipe has a problem or is going to have a problem. Does it give you future predictions?
Helc: Yes it does actually, but that part of the project is in its early stages. Currently we are scanning the pipeline for quality and general maintenance. We started testing the sensors as I mentioned before, the flammable gas sensors to fly along the pipeline but it's still is in early stages, I mean we could detect the leak, however it's not very accurate at the moment due to the nature of the pipelines. There is a company in Alberta, that does simulated pipeline leaks, they have a big warehouse where they actually have a simulation area. So they would provide simulated information as to what happens when a pipeline leaks, and we are talking about pin hole leaks, which are a huge concern for the pipeline providers.
Water Today: A pin hole so a very small hole is what you are talking about.
Helc: A very small hole, yeah, less than 1 millimetre. This is causing quite a bit of concern, because just the nature of the gas, when it escapes the pipe, it doesn't necessarily escape straight to the surface. It could run a couple of miles down the line. It goes through the soil so you never know when it's going to break. So we do discover the leak, however it's still difficult to pinpoint where the leak is, because it may be a mile down the pipeline where it actually comes out from the surface. So we are still working on a new technology for this.
As far as the drones are concerned, for this application they’re still not the ideal solutions, right now the technology is limited by battery life; they’re fairly sturdy units, commercial grade units but they are limited by their battery life. We are waiting for something better to come up. So that's one limitation from the hardware perspective.
Water Today: One of the things I've heard over numerous interviews on drones is the 2.4 gigahertz has issues with reliability and other frequencies interfering, this kind of thing. Have you noticed the same?
Helc: Well it's not, a big issue for us because we are using commercial grade VHF which have encryption, so you cannot tap into the open frequency and even if there is interference from a strong source, they can hop frequency to find the next best. So we didn't find it as a huge issue. As far as the controllability of the craft really, it’s no big deal. We didn't experience any problems.
Where the problems do arise is when there is a lot of other equipment on the craft, for example if you want to transfer video signals. That could be an issue because it conflicts with their controls; There are things you can do to avoid interference but then you get fairly poor video quality on 2.4. So one of the things we are looking for in the future is a frequency spectrum that can be used on video feeds.
Water Today: Well that's interesting, so you haven't had any control issues with the 2.4 but you had live time video issues because of 2.4. Do I have that correctly?
Helc: That's correct.
Water Today: We hear a lot about the hassle of having to file an SFOC to be able to fly close to buildings or infrastructure , is that also an issue from your point of view?
Helc: Well it is and it's not. For many, one of the biggest hurdles right now is Transport Canada paperwork. Once you start dealing on a professional level with Transport Canada, you are dealing with quite expensive paperwork . And for us it wasn't a big deal because we have experience with commercial aviation, so we are sort of used to that. For us it wasn't a big deal because I know how Transport works, so now essentially we file paperwork for drones rather than airplanes.
Water Today: Okay fair enough.
Helc: But some operators would find that quite overwhelming in the beginning because of the requirements. And right now it is still fairly simple, but by the end of 2016, they are completely changing again. So that's going to be an even bigger challenge. Essentially the same procedures that Air Canada would go through to get paperwork would also apply to drones. They are just doing sort of one cut deal for everyone.
Water Today: Okay so around the world today there are two trials starting actually today, one for a fellow who was flying a drone over a soccer game in Europe, and the drone crashed into the crowd. I know you wouldn't fly your drone over a stadium full of people. I'm almost sure of that. I guess what I'm wondering about is what happens when you lose control of your drone? What's the procedure, how does it go from there?
Helc: These types of incidents are mostly caused by private operators, we call them drone dudes. They just go in and think oh cool, this is a cool toy. On a professional level, you are not going to see many stunts of this kind. SFOC provides guidelines; and we all know these guidelines, they just make sense and we follow them. There are many ways of mitigating security and operation incidents. For instance when we operate we clear the area so there is nobody that could be affected. It's like when they operate a crane during the construction of condominium buildings; there is a certain area that needs to be clear and no one comes near where the crane operates. So it's essentially the same idea with drones, because; there is still unproven technology as far as how long the motors work. There are however lots of built-in safety features on the units so they don't just blow up in the sky, they sort of control the crash if you lose the motor; or you have a units that have built-in parachutes for landing. Now from the radio perspective, all these units are equipped with auto-pilot software. So any time you lose radio connection, the unit goes into safe mode and there is a procedure that is built-in to the unit enabling it to remember the exact GPS location where it took off. So this is sort of home point.
Water Today: I talked to an aircraft pilot late last week, who told me that solar flares have begun to interfere with these safe technologies where you have a shut down procedure. And while he said most of the UAV operators are very good, his question was, if there was a solar flare and the GPS has issues with reset, is there a solution ? Or are these incidents so rare that they are not really factored it to anything?
Helc: Of course they are factored in, that is why all the professional systems are equipped with IMUs. That is an acronym for Innertial Measurement Unit. It's a piece of electronics that essentially reports and measures the orientation of the craft. Our units are designed to be used for a long time so we need fairly sophisticated IMUs . But the ones built-in on the craft are pretty good for thirty seconds. The software is built in case you completely lose orientation via your GPS. There are two things the operator can do when restricted to visual line of site operation; either use the stabilization of the platform and bring the craft home manually , or if even that fails, let's say you lose connection, the IMU is good for 30 seconds to provide orientation which is more than enough time for a craft to land. So essentially you would trigger the automatic landing mode and you would land.
Water Today: Oh , so there are options .
Helc: Yeah there are many safety features built-in to commercial units, as for hobby units I'm not sure what they have.
Water Today: Lets talk about capital cost. When someone goes okay, I am going to get into the UAV game I need to buy a relatively stable product, what would the start-out cost be? Is it $50,000, $5,000, what's the approximate cost of getting into the game?
Helc: There is an initital expense of about $50,000 for the hardware. And that's sort of a roadblock for many, because you cannot really finance. There is no institution that is willing to finance drones.
Water Today:So if I go to the bank in Montreal and say, guys, I want to get into the UAV business, they would tell me, that's not happening. Is that right?
Helc: That's exactly it, they're just going to laugh. If say you have a good record and tell them you want to open a bakery, they'll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars, no problem. But if you tell them I need $50,000 to buy drones, they are just going to laugh.
Water Today: When do you think they will come around, or will they come around? What's the big issue with that. I've talked to two insurance groups that say, that they will insure commercial drone use and the operators. What's the barrier with the banks?
Helc: They might come around, but I'm not sure if it will ever come around in Canada. I know this because of my previous experience in general aviation where financing is still done through special financing institutions. You cannot go to TD or RBC or the Bank of Montreal and ask for a loan even for a fixed wing airplane, they are just not going to do it. Maybe if there is a special branch, I think TD has a special branch but the interests rates are so high that it's not even worth it.
Water Today: So there is a barrier to entry both with capital and with the banks. And if you are looking at a minimum of 50,000, that's a lot to have in liquid in the bank. What's the average lifespan of a drone?
Helc: Our capital is broken down for five years. We are hoping to get the five years out of it. But this is still a new industry, so this is something that we are still discovering. But it looks like five years might be a good yardstrick ; you know the manufacturer is still supplying the same product that we purchased , and we can get constant updates. So drones are not in the same vein as mobile phones for example. Right now we are in year 3.5 do we have another year and a half to go and I think that there is a good chance that they might actually last even longer than that.
Water Today: To close off our discussion. Have you noticed an increase in, not so much competition, but is it more that the industry is expanding so fast that there really isn't competition in a given space. Or is it that the sectors are so small right now that virtually anybody getting into the drone industry at all is a competitor. Can you sort of give me an outline of that?
Helc: That's very good question. This year has been a very confusing time. It was clear two years ago in that regard who is the competitor and where it's going to go. Right now due to the constant changes of requirements and laws, it's a bit more confused. Right now for instance in video, we have huge competition. We used to do video shoots for real estate, but now there is almost no business in real estate. Because almost all real estate agents go out and buy a little drone for a $1000, or $1500 and they do their own shoot. So from that point the competition is huge and it's really not worth flying into. But there are these niche business markets; it's not enough just to buy a drone, that's not going to get you anywhere.
Water Today: You need sensors, you need know how, you need access to markets, right?
Helc: Access to market and just knowledge; knowledge of specific industries is a lot more important than the actual flying of the drones. These things are easy to master, so that's not a problem. But having knowledge of markets in the industry is a lot more important. This is what is coming through, this where the business is going towards.