BY: KELSEY ROLFE
Jason Toth spent five days in early October working from a large skiff off the picturesque northeastern coast of Vancouver Island, using a custom-built drone to capture video footage of British Columbia’s waterfalls, mountains, sea lions, salmon, and the tiny islands near Port Hardy. Toth’s company, Revered Cinema, which builds its own drones and uses them for filming and data-collection, was hired by B.C. Tourism to help produce a trailer promoting the province’s beauty. Using Revered’s RVRD X8 drone, with a camera system called Oculus, Toth was able to capture a 360-degree view of the sublime B.C. landscape. The end product, produced by stitching together viewpoints from all seven GoPros in Oculus, will be an immersive three-dimensional virtual reality trailer, which allows the viewer to see footage of areas to the right, the left, and behind the drone while the video continues to roll forward.
Two years ago, Toth says, producing the footage for the tourism feature would have been far more challenging. The technology at the time prevented more than a small camera from being attached to a drone (also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV). Carrying the heavy payloads reduced the battery life significantly, allowing for only five minutes of flight-time before Toth would need to land the drone and swap out batteries. He recalls, “It was just enough to get a shot or two in.”
Now his drones can lift twice as much and fly for roughly 20 minutes. If he reduces the weight of the drone’s payload, he can keep it in the air for up to an hour and a half. “UAVs are finally getting to the point that we can use them in film,” he says. “There’s a lot going on, technology-wise.”
Revered Cinema is just one of hundreds of Canadian businesses using drones to help clients across several industries—film, agriculture, and resource extraction chief among them. According to Transport Canada, which issues special flight operating certificates (SFOCs) to companies using drones for commercial gain, the agency has issued 1,020 SFOCs in 2014 as of September 15. In 2013 it issued 949, a sharp increase from more than 350 in 2012, and just over 150 in 2011.
Canada is experiencing a bit of a drone renaissance—a combination of an increase in drone-based businesses and rapidly advancing UAV technology. But in the United States, where commercial drone use is obstructed by restrictions that essentially prohibit the practice, companies looking to use drones can’t benefit from innovation. Those limitations have given Canada an advantage over its southern neighbour in the emerging drone economy. Though the Federal Aviation Administration has started granting restriction exemptions to film companies and promised to set out proposed rules for commercial drone use by the end of 2014, Canada likely won’t lose its edge any time soon.
“[The FAA] still doesn’t know exactly how they’re going to regulate, what they’re going to regulate, and what’s needed to actually be able to do it,” says Toth, a U.S. citizen and Canadian resident with two and a half years of drone-piloting experience.
Though his plan is to build up Revered Cinema on both sides of the border, he says he doesn’t anticipate substantial change in the States’ regulations happening “any time soon.”
In the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Law, congress included Section 336 to address model and unmanned aircraft operations, which requires companies hoping to fly a UAV for profit to have both a certified aircraft and a licensed pilot to be granted approval from the FAA. One key problem is that, according to spokesman Les Dorr, the FAA is “still working on a certification process for unmanned aircrafts.”
While manufacturers, technology developers, public agencies (like federal, state, and local governments) and universities can apply for separate certificates that allow them to use UAVs for research or other work, the average company looking to use drones commercially is stuck in purgatory. However, more are starting to swing for Section 333 exemptions. Seven film and video production companies received this exemption in late September, making headlines. The exemption gives the FAA the authority to waive the requirement for a company’s aircraft to have an airworthiness certificate.
Until the FAA releases its proposed rules for commercial drone use, invites public consultation, and then drafts the final legislation, a Section 333 exemption is the best available option. But, Dorr says, “we realize there is a demand for commercial unmanned aircraft operations, and once we get the comments back on the proposed rule, we’ll want to act as quickly as we can.”
In Canada, companies planning to incorporate drones into their businesses apply to Transport Canada for an SFOC. The certificates are valid for a limited period of time and usually to a specific area, and will contain conditions specific to the proposed operations. If a company is able to prove it has continued to use its drone safely, Transport Canada may approve longer SFOCs, or even issue a standing SFOC, which permits UAV operations over larger areas.
Though the SFOC application is far from a cakewalk—Toth describes it as “a hundred page document of anything and everything you could think about”—the relative accessibility of Canada’s drone economy has spurred innovation in other industries.
“The application set [for drone use] is just exploding,” says Stuart Baillie, the chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada, a UAV industry non-profit. “There seems to be new applications every day.”
The film industry is already taking advantage of drones for aerial cinematography. Toth says his Vancouver-based company is shooting, on average, 20 days a month, producing video footage for commercials, television shows like Motive and Once Upon a Time, and movies, including the upcoming film, Age of Adaline, starring Blake Lively and Harrison Ford.
The technology is also extremely popular in agriculture; rather than spending hours or days at a time surveying crops, farmers can deploy drones for a 30-minute flight to capture data on crop health, fertilizer use and pathogens.
Lia Reich, the senior director of communications for Precision Hawk, a UAV company with offices in Toronto, North Carolina, and Indiana, says just fewer than 50 percent of the company’s clients are in agriculture. “It’s such a huge market with so much need,” she says. “Agriculture is one of the most data-hungry and data-intensive markets that there is. UAVs are a perfect way to see their world and gather information in a more efficient and effective way.”
Reich also named environmental protection, mining, and oil and gas as up and coming industries for drone-use. “You can have a UAV platform on every oil rig across the world, doing monitoring every single day,” she says, “looking for any type of oil leak, any type of abnormality, so that if there is something we see it the second it happens and we’re not dealing with a humongous oil spill problem.”
Dorr says the FAA has received 94 requests for Section 333 exemptions, which include companies looking to work in those industries. The administration is still in the process of considering the requests.
Toth argues, though, that even as the U.S. starts to allow commercial drone use, Canada will still be competitive, given the country’s surplus of natural resources.
“We’ve got a viable film industry, just like L.A., up here in Vancouver, but we have the diversity of the landscape,” he says. “I think [Canada’s] gonna definitely hold its own.”