Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Technology, For Good or Ill

"[Transport Canada announced in May it plans to hold consultations on developing regulatory protocols for UAVs, proposing] new flight rules, aircraft marking and registration requirements, knowledge testing, minimum age limits, and pilot permits for certain UAV operators."
Transport Canada

"There are a lot of companies looking at what Canada is doing. Just by virtue of our geography, we're a highly sought-after market for using UAVs."
Sterling Cripps, founder/president Canadian Unmanned Inc.

"This is definitely a historic watershed event. We've finally come to a point where the [government] agencies are seriously entertaining integrating manned systems with unmanned systems."
"For better or worse, the [wild]fires seem to be growing in scope every year, and the causes of that are left to debate but the reality is that we keep spending more and more of our time and resources on fighting fires."
Charlton Evans, program manager, commercial and civil unmanned aircraft systems, Insitu

"That incident [unmanned drone appearing over a B.C. wildfire] had a significant impact on our firefighting suppression efforts that day. I have no idea why someone would do that."
Noelle Kekula, fire information officer, B.C. Wildfire Service
Thick smoke creates a hazy, orange atmosphere in Elaho, B.C.
Thick smoke creates a hazy, orange atmosphere in Elaho, B.C.  Wildfire Management Branch

The incident in question took place as a wildfire raged out of control close to Testalinden Creek in southern British Columbia, in August. The B.C. Wildfire Service had launched eight helicopters to try to save the Okanagan vineyards renowned for their award-winning wines. Another five aircraft were to be sent into the air in support of fire crews on the ground. Suddenly a drone was seen, and all fire-fighting aircraft had be grounded until the drone was no longer in evidence.

Earlier last month as well, a helicopter in support of ground crews fighting a wildfire west of Kelowna, B.C. was similarly forced to land when a number of drones were seen in the area. No one knows who was behind the drones, why they were in the air at such a critical time, who their remote pilots were, but clearly their presence posed a danger to manned aircraft. The B.C. Wildfire Service issued a press release as a result.

Transport Canada prohibits the use of drones near wildfires since their presence can pose a "significant safety risk to personnel". There is a penalty when drone-owners violate rules and regulations, where they can anticipate fines of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail. Enforcing the rules and exacting a penalty where it is due, however, is another thing altogether. How to find these unknown drone operators? They're the modern equivalent of fire-gawkers, people driven to the scene of fires, only now they're able to satisfy their curiosity remotely, with the use of drones.

Drones are proving their mettle in their use during the fight against wildfires. A ScanEagle drone by Insitu Inc. was used at the Paradise fire in the Olympic National Park, Washington, using an infrared camera to pinpoint hot spots and identify the precise size and location of the fire, enabling manned aircraft to see properly, despite thick smoke obliterating views, as well as during the dark of night, when they're not allowed to lift off.

This represented the first time a private company was invited to supply an unmanned aircraft in the assistance of fire crews. The technology is able to give fire crews real-time data on fire size, growth, behaviour, fuels and hot spots. Increasingly, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used by Canadian fire departments to aid in fighting burning buildings, but according to a seasoned drone expert there have been no instances in Canada where their use has aided in fighting forest fires. Yet.

Many of Canada's large industries such as energy, mining, forestry, transportation and agriculture have become testing grounds for the use of drones. At the same time, drones for recreational and commercial purposes have become a recent phenomenon driven by improved technology and cheaper acquisitions, leading to more widespread use. It is the intersection of recreational use and practical working use of drones where problems arise.

Recreational users of drones weighing less than 34 kilograms at the present time need no permission to fly, even while they are prohibited from flying over airports, people, animals, buildings or vehicles. As well as close to sporting events concerts, busy streets or anywhere else where their presence may interfere with first-responders.

Commercial operators of UAVs, on the other hand, weighing over 25 kilograms do require special flight operations certificates from Transport Canada, and the same rules that apply to recreational users apply to them as well. It's a new world of more crowded skies making it obvious that greater awareness and caution should be broadly exercised.

The problem is that there will always be those individuals who enjoy flouting the rules and flaunting their ability to 'get away with', potentially dangerous, and perhaps exciting-to-them exploits, endangering others but a matter of entertainment to themselves.

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