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Don’t just fly your drone out of the box

New regulations make flying a drone more complicated for both recreational and commercial users

You’ve invested thousands of dollars in that unmanned air vehicle (UAV), and you’re anxious to see it perform. You take it out of the box, plunk in the batteries, and off it goes… forever.

It happens, says Matthew Johnson, owner of M3 Aerial Productions, a Winnipeg company that offers UAV training and aerial imagery and mapping services.

He calls it “flyaway,” which is when a UAV, or drone, loses track of its home point, and the operator can no longer control it.

“Most people who have flyaways have them because they don’t understand how to use their drone properly, they’ve not read the manual and followed the guidelines about safe operation,” Johnson says.

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Not only is it money down the drain, it’s also a potential safety hazard.

Transport Canada recently introduced new regulations around both recreational and commercial use of UAVs.

Anyone flying drones recreationally must follow new safety rules that include not flying at night, in clouds, or higher than 90 metres above ground, and maintaining a distance of 75 metres from buildings, vehicles, vessels, animals, and people.

You also can’t fly within nine kilometres of “aerodromes,” which include small local airstrips.

Most commercial operators will need to obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), which is also required for all UAVs over 35 kilograms in weight, whether they are being flown recreationally or commercially.

For UAVs under 35 kilograms, there are two exemptions for which commercial operators can apply to conduct lower-risk UAV operation in remote areas without an SFOC. To qualify, operators must demonstrate to Transport Canada that they understand and can meet the updated, weight-based safety criteria.

Farmers need an SFOC

“There are a lot of requirements in order to meet the stipulations of the exemption, and if you can’t then you have to get an SFOC,” says Johnson.

“Where farmers are concerned, if they’re using a drone on their operation, even just for themselves to take pictures of their crops, that’s still a commercial endeavour and so they’re not subject to the recreational legislation, they’re subject to the commercial, which requires that they have training from a certified training school, and obtain an SFOC.”

Stitched drone photos show aerial view of crops or use infrared lenses to track healthy growth and low growth areas in a field.
photo: Courtesy: Matthew Johnson

Johnson started offering UAV operators courses in November 2016 and had already trained 42 people by the end of March. Most are from the agricultural industry such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada employees, researchers, students, agronomists and some farmers.

Lesson one is knowing your drone and its limitations.

“For example, people don’t realize that when they are operating their drone in the winter, depending on which drone it is, some of them are not meant to be flown in less than 0 C and others in less than -10 C,” Johnson says.

A good place to start is to always read the instruction manual, a step people often skip, sometimes to their regret.

“A friend of mine was given a Phantom 3 Professional drone for Christmas and he took it into his back yard, and it was -30 C outside, and put the battery in, turned it on, and it flew away and he lost it. He flew it for one-and-a-half seconds,” says Johnson.

“When I’ve talked to all these people who have had flyaways, the one thing that I’ve noticed that’s very consistent is that they haven’t been calibrating their drones. They’ve done it maybe once or twice but you need to do it every time you fly.”

Structures and metal buildings can affect the signal to UAVs, as can different locations, Johnson says.

“Different areas of the Earth have different magnetic fields that can cause the drone’s guidance chips to become affected, so you need to recalibrate your drone every time you move to a different location too.”

The course also covers operational factors, including how environmental conditions such as heat, cold, dust, wind and precipitation can affect the drone.

“If it’s too hot, the batteries can overheat and you end up getting other problems that are associated with that. If it’s too cold, the chemical reactions inside the batteries prevent them from functioning reliably, so you can have unpredictable battery power,” says Johnson.

Complicated application

Johnson also helps simplify the process of applying for an SFOC. “When I filled out my SFOC application for the first time it took me over 40 hours.”

Participants in the initial operator’s course do not actually fly UAVs because they need to complete the training before they are able to do that, but they can take a followup, hands-on UAV training course that gets them outside and flying, and also runs through how to collect and process the data they collect.

“It’s mostly consulting agronomists and researchers that are investing in the higher-end UAV technology,” Johnson says. “But farmers are able to do it on their own if they really want to. It’s not all that complicated to apply on their farm. At a base level, they can use it without advanced sensors just to get an aerial perspective of their field, and that changes their whole understanding of how the field is growing.”

High-end UAVs, such as those used by researchers and consultants, can cost up to $30,000, but Johnson says farmers don’t need to invest that much to get a lot more data. For around $2,000 to $3,000 they can purchase a good-quality UAV such as the Phantom 3 or Phantom 4 Professional multi-rotor UAV manufactured by DJI and add additional sensors that give more detail for a total of $7,000 to $8,000.

New sensor

A new sensor, made by Minneapolis-based Sentera, is making it easier for farmers to collect and analyze their own imagery and mapping data.

“In my opinion, the Sentera sensor is one of best available for farmers at this point right now. It’s small enough that it can fit on the DJI Phantom series drones, which are the most common drone in the world,” says Johnson.

“The Sentera sensor allows farmers to fly their drone normally as they would to collect any kind of video or photo imagery they want, but it also allows them to collect near-infrared, NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) imagery at the same time.”

Sentera includes software called Ag Vault that provides the NDVI data to the farmer immediately at the field.

“You land the drone, plug it into a laptop and it does a basic processing of the data, so you can have it right away,” says Johnson. “That’s one of the major benefits of this sensor. In the past the process was a lot more complicated and took several hours to fly the fields, upload everything back at the office, process and distribute the data. This way, anyone can have the data at field-side.”

Johnson says that although UAV technology is constantly evolving, this year’s equipment won’t be obsolete by next year, so it’s a sound investment.

“There will likely be other equipment come along that is better but the equipment from this year is still going to be providing that excellent quality of data that’s available now for the next five to eight years, depending on how much use the drone sees.”

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