The Aeryon Scout takes flight in this company handout photo. The micro-aircraft is small enough to fit in a backpack and has a myriad of commercial uses, says the company. March 4, 2012.
Credits: submitted photo/Aeryon
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There's a hum in the sky above Waterloo, Ont., where small unmanned aircrafts are being developed and tested.
Drones, as they are known, have become synonymous with covert military operations overseas, spying on enemy positions and over troublesome countries.
Now the market for this technology is poised to take flight at home.
The commercial demand for unmanned aerial vehicles - or UAVs for short - in North America is growing, from police agencies to energy companies finding new ways to use eyes in the skies. And a Canadian company is at the forefront.
A recent U.S. Aerospace and Defence study predicted the worldwide military and commercial market for UAVs in the next 10 years will total $94 billion, and Aeryon, in Waterloo, is ready to cash in.
Ian McDonald, a marketing vice-president at the company that produces the micro-aircraft small enough to fit in a backpack, said his company's drones are already widely used commercially but that the applications are so far only touching the surface.
Since 2007, Transport Canada has issued 293 flight certificates, allowing for 1,000 civilian drones to be used in Canada.
"You can think of the system as a flying camera," says McDonald. "It can carry thermal cameras, high-res still camera, video camera with 10x optical zoom."
McDonald says if you can use Google maps, you can fly a drone. With a few taps on a tablet guide, he demonstrates how Aeryon's 3-lb. Scout can take off in 40-km/h winds.
The Aeryon Scout made international headlines last summer when the Libyan rebels purchased one for $100,000. They learned to use the technology in 20 minutes and were instantly able to gather video intel from the air on Gadhafi compounds.
Their ease of use and range of applications make micro-drones easy to be employed by fire and emergency response teams for search-and-rescue mission, as well as by oil and gas companies to survey land from above.
Halton Regional Police, in Ontario, began using an UAV last spring, mostly to photograph collision scenes and to aid search and rescue operations. In February, a Halton police drone hovered over the fatal Via rail crash in the region to get instant aerial images.
Wildlife and forestry officials are also using the technology to help track their wide expanses without the need of more expensive aircrafts.
"You can observe what a person is carrying, a stick or a shovel, and if you get closer you can even do facial recognition," says McDonald.
It's that kind of claim that worries privacy advocates.
Security expert Alex Holstein said the technology could too easily allow users to infringe on personal liberties.
"Citizens should always be aware of what their government are investing in and civil libertarians particularly need to keep an eye on things to ensure there aren't abuses of the technology," Holstein says.
But, unlike military uses overseas where drones collect information on bad guys from above, in Canada there are rules to protect the rights of those on the ground from such eyes in the skies, says McDonald. Drones are not permitted for civilian surveillance or to collect personal information.
"We notify regulatory bodies anytime we are going to fly, just like when you are going up in an aircraft," he says. "So while there is the potential that someone will use the system for other purposes there is a high cost to doing that."