How to Save a Life With Drones - with the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association

Transcript

Olivier:
Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining our series of pre-recorded webinars for Drone Safety Day. Drone Safety Day is designed to promote safe drone practices and explore trendy and innovative ways that drones are being used throughout Canada.

My name is Olivier Bellehumeur‑Genier, and I am a Civil Aviation Safety Inspector with Transport Canada’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Task Force.

Transport Canada is the federal government department responsible for regulating and developing transport policies and programs, including those related to drones.

I am here with Marco Laforest, Montreal Zone Commander for the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, a national non-profit association dedicated to promoting aviation safety and providing air search support to the national search and rescue program.

Thank you very much, Marco, for joining us here today for this interview. We are very happy to have you here in studio, and I look forward to doing this interview with you.

Marco:
My pleasure, thank you.

Olivier:
So, Marco, can you tell us how drones are used in your line of work?

Marco:
Drones are actually a new working tool added fairly recently. What you need to know is that search and rescue is currently carried out using traditional methods. We join up with the Canadian Armed Forces, then aircraft are used. Our association provides an air force, including airplanes, to fly over the spaces as well as ground teams to complement searches.  Airplanes today fly at good speeds and cover large areas. Drones are also becoming an interesting addition to the toolbox for proximity searches in places where the terrain is rougher or more difficult to access. This allows us to cover a surface, to program the drone that can do it, to carry out a search and to conduct a complete scan with observers to cover areas at lower speed with high definition cameras and record images. So, this kind of use is for searches of either people or objects included in the search target. Another way they are used is to document a discovery location. If we have a location where an incident has been discovered, we want to document that location so we can also capture an image and use it in our archives for analyses and then for the post-mortem for the event.

Olivier:
Great, and you just mentioned that regions were increasingly beginning to equip themselves with drones across Canada. Can you tell us a little bit about the drone models that you commonly use?

Marco:
The model currently selected is the Mavic Air 2 Entreprise, which is equipped with a lighting system, information beacon and speaker. That drone is very stable so it can operate in weather conditions for all our operations: extreme wind or cold conditions in addition to having the option of a thermal camera that complements the quality of our images or search options. So, this is one of the reasons, and it still also has a good range in terms of distance and reliability for video recording and the remote control signal.

Olivier:
And I would like to know, in your opinion, what are the advantages of using drones compared to other technologies that are currently available?

Marco:
For us, drones. . . we use airplanes as our main search tool. Our planes are fast and can carry several people, so observers can move over a large area. In addition, when we contact crews on the ground that we are searching, they are in vehicles, so these vehicles move close to the search location, but have limited access. We know that when we search for people or for objects, it’s definitely not necessarily on the road. So, it allows us to extend our visual capacity over areas alongside roads that are nevertheless accessible to large ranges. We’re talking about a three-or four-kilometre area where you can go and observe at a much slower speed and with excellent visual quality. It’s really an interesting tool at a very reasonable price today.

Olivier:
We can see that there are many advantages associated with this technology. I would like to know what you think are the biggest challenges associated with using drones?

Marco:
Currently, the challenges. . . definitely in more difficult weather conditions there are certain limits that must be respected. You need to wait until conditions are favourable to drone operation, and today one of the difficulties involves regulations on going out of visual range. As I explained, we’re often on the side of the road. We deploy drones inland in these areas, so for us deploying observers becomes a challenge in itself to make sure we have visual contact with the drones at all times. We also know that research projects currently underway will probably help us in remote areas, which is our main playing field. So, to be able to go out of visual range with drones that can be reliable in those areas.

Olivier:
So, do you think that there are wrong preconceptions about the use of drones?

Marco:
That’s what we need to fight against right now. A lot of it involves people’s perception of additional privacy concerns. In our organization, when we do either training or missions, we have to make sure that we inform the people near our operations to reassure them on the fact that we do not observe people and do not want to invade their privacy. We are operating internally on a training mission or a real mission to reassure people that we are not observing their property. There is a pre-conceived notion that these drones are used either for illegal activities, which is what the media reports, or for intrusive observation. I think that this is a notion held by people who are less familiar with this field. It’s something that you need to be careful about. We also always make sure we are properly identified and work with as much information as possible available to the nearby public.

Olivier:
Right, so I would like to know what are the main lessons that you and your organization have learned about the drone situation?

Marco:
We are currently still in the process of completing deployment. So far we have been an organization that works with the military, so our processes, our ways of doing things, are similar. We work with a lot of procedures, methodology and structure. For me, I think that it remains important to continue in that context with this device. Fundamentally, we consider drones to be airplanes, with the same kinds of pre-inspection, inspection and operational requirements. I think that it’s important to work in that context. That said, limitations must also be respected. One of the things when you start working with these devices is seeing the capacities of the machine and how big it can be. It can easily disappear from view. So, that’s the first surprise because once we get a bit farther away, we can see that it’s a really small dot. In addition, choosing grey colours is less desirable because these are things we want to correct, also, using colours that make it more visually appealing. What’s also being done, at the organizational level. . . we have very specific roles with a training system. We make sure that, for example, our pilots are qualified, our flight observers are qualified, that we have navigators who are qualified, and we have even considered creating a drone pilot role with minimum qualifications including an advanced Transport Canada license and a whole series of procedures and training in relation to another type of operation. 

Olivier:
How do you think drone use will change in your organization in the coming years?

Marco:
I think that the technology is truly up and coming, so if you look at the capabilities that have been developed over the last five years, it’s really impressive and is just the beginning of something. Right now, there are two aspects to consider. We work with a software program called Loc8, which currently allows us to detect, let’s say an individual, for example. We’re searching for you; you’ve gone missing. We are going to use the colour of your outfit, program it in the software, take the drone, capture images, then load them in the software which will identify images where this color is present. It can be as big as a tennis ball. So, that’s already really impressive. We’re working on that kind of software today. We are also collaborating with the Kongsberg company on a research project that fundamentally involves developing a piloting position for flying drones out of visual range. Personally, I think one of the most prominent aspects is going to be in our operations, being able to cover a larger area with greater autonomy. I think that today one of the brakes. . . often in terms of autonomy, we’re talking 30 minutes of battery life before it needs to be charged or replaced. So, this autonomy will naturally evolve over time, and also the ability to cover the largest area at speeds that allow us to reach objectives much more quickly than we think.

Olivier:
What does drone safety mean? Could you please provide an example of what it means to you?

Marco:
Safety means ensuring that drones fly under the normal conditions that they were designed for. So, we’re talking temperature, wind. We also look at distance from bystanders. So, making sure that bystanders are at a sufficient distance depending on the type of operation. Currently, all operators are advanced, so we search with a minimum distance of five metres from bystanders. In addition, once that’s done, the crew is already trained, so there is a lot of drone crew training missions that are carried out for those used to operations. So, once they are well trained, they are accredited to use it in the field. So, they are able to ensure a distance from bystanders, to ensure drone safety, and to have pre-established procedures in case of a “fly away,” which essentially means losing remote control of the drone, so emergency procedures. For more serious situations, drones can be landed at specific locations or the engine can simply be shut down to let them go. Which is reassuring: most of our missions will be in inhospitable regions. We work. . . we do not conduct searches over a city, or over a large city or a small city. We conduct searches in wooded, mountainous or very hilly areas, which means minimal safety concerns for bystanders. There is also the safety of the drone itself, but I think that when you conduct a search and are trying to save a life, the price of the device loses its meaning.

Olivier:
Now, on another note, I would like to know, do you have any programs or initiatives that you have launched to inform the public or raise public awareness about your operations?

Marco:
Actually, at the very beginning of our operations, we do it locally when we carry out operations. For example, for a mission that was carried out two weeks ago, we were informed about a nearby golf course. We informed the police department that we were conducting operations so that they would know what we were doing at those locations. Our mission also includes keeping the Canadian pilot and aviation community informed. But, because we are starting to make people talk about the programs that we are carrying out, we are continuing to promote the use of safety, that is to say of air equipment. But now, for us drone safety remains an additional element that we want to add to our operations.

Olivier:
That’s great. Otherwise, I know that your organization has participated in the Discovery Channel show, Animal Planet, which shone the spotlight a bit on the Heron drone.

Marco:
Essentially, we’re talking about drones, about recent drones, the technology of today. But it wasn’t just yesterday that Casara took an interest in using this technology as a tool. In 2008, we had a team working with the Heron drone to do a search and rescue demonstration. There was a plane in the air in addition to a drone. For those who don't know about drones, Heron is really an autonomous plane; there is much more to it than the small drones that immediately come to mind. So, we got the plane off the ground and conducted a combined search and rescue mission, so we worked in communication with air support and were able to demonstrate the value of this technology. As far as implementing its value in our operations, however, the costs at that time were much higher than our ability to integrate this technology, but it already provided us with our first steps and initial reflection. That reflection is ongoing today and will continue in the coming years.

Olivier:
Prevention is a central principle in Casara’s search and rescue operations. Can you tell me a little about what this means for your organization’s drone operations?

Marco:
Given that this is a new technology, we ensure that everyone meets Transport Canada requirements. So, every pilot operating in Canada has the advanced license. That means no one can be part of our operations unless they have the advanced licence. That’s the first important point. The second is that we establish people, coaches, in each region to support the development of this capacity. So, currently, there is a pan-Canadian working team that meets monthly—virtually, of course—to determine all operating procedures. So, a guide of operating procedures is in progress: we have received new devices and have produced a checklist of working methods for each one. Once that’s also done, for mission procedures, well, we’re a procedural organization, so that’s what we've set up and we make sure that we acquire the skills of people developing in this field. In Quebec, I have supported people from Chibougamau in their training, so I have guided the training they have received. They are currently undergoing the process (best example), have passed the theoretical advanced piloting exam and are now awaiting next steps. They need to be trained with a drone before going through the licencing exam with a flight examiner. They then have to be trained on working methods in Casara operations.

Olivier:
That’s all for our interview with the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association. We hope that you have enjoyed this webinar.

The other webinars in our pre-recorded webinar series on drone safety will provide an overview of drone safety regulations and explore other original and innovative ways that drones are used in Canada. Don’t forget to watch them as well.

If you have questions about safe drone operations or comments about our webinars, follow Transport Canada’s Twitter conversation at 1:00 p.m. November 13. A panel of drone experts will be available to answer any interesting questions you may have live.

Drone safety is everyone’s responsibility. To celebrate Drone Safety Awareness Day, tell us what drone safety means to you. Share a photo, message or story on your social media accounts with the hashtag #DroneSafetyDay and visit Transport Canada’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages to see what drone safety means to you and other Canadians.

So, a big thank you for coming in to the studio.

Marco:
It was my absolute pleasure.

Olivier:
It was really interesting to learn all the operations and everything that is going on in your field, and I look forward to following future developments.

Marco:
Thank you.