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Draganflyer UAV R/C Helicopter featured in Law Enforcement Magazine

The Draganflyer X6 has recently been featured in Blueline Magazine. Blueline magazine is Canada’s national law enforcement magazine. Below is a reprint of the article, you can find the original article here.

Moving Ahead With A Pilotless Project

The OPP Program Is Maturing

marcshapre1The April 2008 Blue Line Magazine cover featured the OPP Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) project, which entered operational service with the Kenora Forensic Services Unit in August, 2008. The original “FIU-301” system was an “in-house” design born of necessity (in my garage) to provide an efficient and economical way of obtaining high resolution aerial images at major case scenes.

Despite a very modest beginning, the 301 system made aviation history as the first federally approved UAV to enter full time service with an emergency service in North America. Over the next year, we successfully deployed 301’s at seven homicide scenes with a conservative estimate of $20,000 saved over our traditional charter service method. The images obtained have been accepted during court proceedings and have proved valuable court aids to judges, juries, counsel and witnesses.

In the original article I emphasized the challenges and importance of obtaining and operating within the governing legislation of the Canadian Air Regulations (CARs). Issued by Transport Canada, the “Special Flight Operations Certificate” (SFOC) that must be obtained for any type or size of “non-hobby” unmanned flying machine dictates a number of operational procedures and restrictions. There is no doubt that the legislative hurdles are the main reason more of these systems are not being used by civilian agencies. However, it is possible to continue advancing UAV use within the current rule set if we proceed properly.

In January of this year, we took the next step to achieving this goal by putting a second, commercially produced, UAV into operational service within the Kenora Forensic Unit.

The “Draganflyer X6” is produced here in Canada by Saskatoon-based “Draganfly Innovations”. The Draganflyer X6 is an innovative six rotor helicopter configuration that incorporates advanced on-board stabilization features along with a GPS hold function, providing an excellent camera platform.

At just under two kilograms, this small portable electric helicopter can carry a variety of wireless, “real-time” playback camera packages, including 10 megapixel still, a low-light video, high-def video or micro thermal imaging. This vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities allow us to operate essentially under the same restrictions as our initial 301 system, but within a much smaller area of operations. To this end, we have already used the Draganflyer X6 at four homicide scenes, with the second representing another aviation first – the first federally approved operational use in North America of a UAV by an emergency service within an urban environment.

Although the basic mission of obtaining aerial images remains essentially the same, the VTOL capabilities of the Draganflyer X6, advanced electronic assist functions, ease of operation and multiple camera packages lets us explore some basic tactical or search and rescue assist roles. Granted, the 15 to 20 minute operational time, weather conditions and current legislation make those mission capabilities very limited, but we have already proven the court value of basic aerial images along with demonstrated cost savings.

These small systems will continue to evolve and improve with more options becoming available. Case in point, Draganfly recently announced a new Draganflyer X4 model which will offer many of the capabilities of the Draganflyer X6 for a lower price.

Other promising systems such as Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs “Scout” (http://www.aeryon.com/) will continually improve operational support capabilities. The price range of the “turn key” package systems range from $10,000 to $50,000 and certainly fall into the “doable” category when compared with similarly capable “military grade” systems.

I suggest command staff, incident commanders, administrators or surveillance personnel take heed. When I say moving forward in small steps, I mean very small steps. We are very likely “years” away from being allowed to operate any UAV beyond the “visual line of sight” of the operator or outside a secured police environment. Any grand ideas about highway patrols, extensive large area search and rescue operations or especially any form of surveillance should not be on any police radar (pun intended).

Regardless of the circumstances, we do not have any special authority to circumvent federal aviation law in this area. The fact still remains that no specific legislation has been written to cover the operations of any UAV within civilian airspace. It is an issue that Transport Canada must eventually invest significant resources in developing. Until that time however, we are continuing to develop safe and effective operating procedures that could very well set the standards and templates for the pending legislation.

Although limited, we have demonstrated that a UAV has a practical place in support of forensic services with developing elements of officer and public safety in tactical and search and rescue roles. If we keep to the basics and continue to operate safely and professionally, we can continue to creep forward. To this end, working with the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (http://www.ccuvs.com/) and the Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC), we recently completed the first run of a “pilot project” (no pun intended) to professionally train operators of these small UAVs.

The course curriculum included a pre-course study package, a “ground school” element and written testing based on basic flight theory and related Canadian air regulations. Candidates also obtained an Industry Canada radio licence that will allow them to communicate on aviation frequencies. Theory was accompanied with hands-on flight training on the currently approved Draganflyer X6 system to manufacturer standard.

Six candidates from three police services participated (Saskatoon, OPP and Regina). Upon completing the training, candidates critiqued all aspects of the course curriculum could be refined to ensure relevancy of a future permanent training program for interested emergency services.

It is anticipated within the following months that Saskatoon and Regina will have their own X6 system to put into operational service. This, of course, will depend on the two departments successfully obtaining a SFOC from Transport Canada, the foundation of which will be supported by the training program. In the interim, Saskatoon has already contracted and obtained SFOC authority to have Draganfly Innovations perform basic aerial photography at selected scenes as required.

Along with out partnered services and organizations, we are working to establish a national standard for safe, practical and professional use of UAV technology that will benefit both the public and those who work for them. Keeping that in mind, I will be chairing a full day workshop at the annual UVS Canada (http://www.uvscanada.org/) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International Conference, being held in Victoria November 2 to 5. If your department is considering using UAV technology, it would be well worth the investment to send a motivated representative to this conference.

It is our goal to identify and organize a central repository resource of interested agencies, expertise and resources that will benefit all police and emergency services. Working together under established standard operating procedures, training and UAV systems will pave the way for wider operational use. Contact me at marc.sharpe@ontario.ca if you are looking for more information.

Marc Sharpe is an ident constable with Kenora OPP Forensic Identification Services.

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