Alberta hopes drone project with Nevada takes flight



EDMONTON – Unmanned aerial drones may one day watch over the pipelines that criss-cross Alberta’s landscape, and the province is hoping to develop such cutting-edge technology with Nevada’s help.

Alberta has signed a new agreement with the U.S. state on developing drones to boost the province’s reputation in the aerospace industry, as it pushes for economic development beyond the energy sector.

The three-year deal, signed at the recent U.S. Council of State Governments-West meeting in Las Vegas, pledges the two governments will work together in the developing field of unmanned vehicle systems, commonly referred to as drones.

Though military use of these small aircraft often dominates headlines — particularly last week as U.S. drone strikes continued in Yemen — a growing sector is working to harness the technology equipment for civilian use.

Alberta, home to the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems in Medicine Hat, is one of the hot spots.

“The technology has been proven in the military applications, but it is moving toward the civilian, commercial, industrial and agricultural applications: things like pipeline surveillance, forestry monitoring and the agricultural sector as well,” said Derek Cummings, spokesman for International and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Cal Dallas.

“It’s a growth industry. It’s an opportunity to diversify our economy, so there are benefits for us for sure.”

About 70 companies, military agencies and educational institutions are working in Alberta on the research, development and testing of these complex systems, the provincial government says.

Other companies are beginning to integrate the technology into their business. Stantec, for example, recently purchased its first unmanned aerial vehicle to help with its mapping and topographical work. The small plane has a wingspan of almost one metre, weighs 630 grams and takes high-resolution pictures.

Still, the sector only accounts for a fraction of province’s $1.3-billion aerospace and defence industry. Nationwide, most aviation-related research and development in the country’s $22-billion aerospace industry is in Ontario and Quebec.

Provincial officials believe these small, unmanned aircraft have a big future in Alberta, particularly with the Canadian centre of excellence located at Medicine Hat’s airport. The federal government also is weighing whether to approve an unmanned vehicle training centre in southeast Alberta near Foremost, with restricted airspace that would allow companies and researchers to fly tests of the equipment beyond their line of sight.

Nevada, meanwhile, has applied to become home to one of six Federal Aviation Administration-approved unmanned vehicle test sites in the U.S.

Officials with ING Robotic Aviation, an Ottawa-based company with thousands of hours experience supporting Canadian troops in Afghanistan with aerial surveillance, said the two jurisdictions are a good fit.

Nevada has a long history of aviation experimentation, said Jeremy Byatt, ING’s senior counsel of corporate affairs.

Alberta is a place where there are huge growth opportunities for the sector, such as using the remotely piloted aircraft to help monitor the thousands of kilometres of pipeline across the province. ING, for example, plans to open its first Alberta office in Calgary this week.

“This makes sense,” Byatt said of the Alberta-Nevada agreement to collaborate. “We didn’t know this was coming, but we’re not surprised.”

ING Robotics’ chief operating officer Wilson Pearce said he takes the memorandum as a sign of how progressive Alberta has been applying new technology.

“For us, as a leading supplier of unmanned aerial robotic systems, this is an absolutely terrific market to be operating in,” he said.

“You have extensive pipelines, you’ve got fixed assets, you’ve got infrastructure spread over a wide area and robotic aviation provides you with a means to survey and monitor those assets with a far-reduced footprint in terms of both the economic impact and the physical impact,” Wilson said.

The agreement is now among a list of about 180 different deals Alberta has signed to work with other governments in Canada and abroad on issues ranging from best farming practices to agreements for friendly sports exchanges.

But the pledge to work with Nevada is the first in the area of high-tech unmanned systems.

The idea took flight last August when Dallas led a trade mission to the Unmanned System North America conference, an international industry conference held in Nevada.

This Tuesday, that same event — this time in Washington, D.C. — will be the site of the first roundtable discussion between a group of about 30 Alberta and Nevada businesses in the industry interested in meeting potential collaborators, research partners or business contacts.

In a statement issued after the deal was signed, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said he was excited about what the Alberta partnership means for the state’s aerospace industry.

Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, described the aerospace industry as an important area of economic development for Nevada.

Hill believes the agreement with Alberta will bring international recognition that will help boost the industry.

ING’s Pearce said one area where he could easily see collaboration is in the ongoing effort to shrink the complex pieces of equipment that unmanned aerial vehicles carry. With aircraft only able to carry a few kilograms of weight, a whole range of sensors and gear must be miniaturized.

“Perhaps there are companies working in Nevada on that,” Pearce said. “That would complement the growth of a Canadian industry.”