UAVs for First Responders

In the Canadianized version of the 1959 short story For Your Eyes Only, fictional spy James Bond is in Canada on a secret mission. A mysterious officer at RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa provides 007 with false paperwork and some advice: “Our Commissioner has a motto: ‘Never send a man where you can send a bullet.’ You might remember that. So long, Commander.” Today, the advice would more likely be something like, “Never send a responder into a situation where an unmanned system would be more appropriate.”

In the air, on and under water, outdoors and inside buildings, unmanned systems have the potential to extend first responders’ capabilities and do ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ tasks. But public agencies need ‘portable, predictable and affordably-priced’ equipment. At Securetech 2015 in Ottawa, a well-qualified panel looks at the opportunities and challenges of unmanned systems. In the weeks leading up to the event, FrontLine Safety & Security spoke with scheduled participants. 

Panel member Michael Nolan, Chief Paramedic and Director Emergency Services for Ontario’s County of Renfrew knows what he wants when he launches unmanned aircraft: more freedom to operate. “The regulations under Transport Canada are written for everybody. Sounds great in theory, but in practice, maybe it doesn’t make much sense,” he says. “In most jurisdictions, and certainly in Canada, the highway traffic rules all specifically exempt police, fire and paramedic vehicles because the need to respond to emergency situations means they must violate the rules that apply to everyone else.” Just like ambulances and police cruisers, Nolan argues, first responder UAVs are responding to emergencies, and should have ­special exemptions for that.

Nolan explains that operating a UAV is no different from lighting up his truck when he is trying to save lives. “We are not operating these aircraft for fun, and we’re not surveying crops or taking pictures of real estate. So we have not yet had that discussion about easing the limits on our operations.” 

Around the world and here in Canada, industry and government are working to bring the right equipment to the front lines of first response. Unmanned Systems Canada is a national association with a leadership role in unmanned aerial systems development and application. Director Mark Aruja noted that a defining moment on how public opinion was shifting from widespread mistrust and apprehension to optimism and opportunity occurred on 9 May 2013. RCMP Corporal Doug Green had used a DraganFlyer UAV to locate a hypothermic man in the bush near Saskatoon and saved his life. “The story was in such contrast to previous accounts, that Cpl Green subsequently appeared on the Katie Couric show in the United States to a very large audience to describe what was heralded as the first Search and Rescue by a drone,” he commented. 

Steve Palmer, Director of the University of Regina’s Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety, was host to a large number of Canadian stakeholders last summer at a meeting to draft a national strategy on first responders and unmanned aerial systems. “One of the technical challenges to satisfy is working with Transport Canada to get beyond Line of Sight. That’s probably going to be the next big hurdle on the technical side,” he said. 

Transport Canada requirements state that all “small” UAVs (25 kg or less) “must be operated within visual line-of-sight (VLOS)”. This means that the pilot must have the unmanned vehicle in sight at all times. The regulation further stipulates that visual aids such as binoculars or night vision goggles cannot be used to extend human visual contact.

“An early challenge,” says Mark Aruja, “was to meet Transport Canada’s demand that, in order for them to assign resources to the development of the necessary regulatory framework to govern the use of these aerial systems, a business case had to be built.” 

Years of cooperation and steady progress are finally getting somewhere. Aruja points to a May 2015 announcement by Transport Canada about proposed changes to the aeronautical regulations as the result of eight years of sustained effort. Among the changes, Transport Canada would establish aircraft marking and registration requirements, create new flight rules, and address personnel licensing and training.

“Nonetheless, these regulatory changes apply to operations within Visual Line of Sight, which will enable most first responder operations. The Beyond Visual Line of Sight work is well underway, and with that effort complete, we will truly see dramatic growth in commercial applications.” 

One technical key to advancing all unmanned aerial applications is the ‘sense and avoid’ capability – the ability for an unmanned aircraft to ‘see’ obstacles, including other aircraft, and take measures to avoid collision. Current regulations require a “visual observer” whose primary task is to continuously monitor the UAV and inform the pilot of any potential hazards, in order to avoid potential collision. The next step is to create sensors that can effectively provide this function. “From a technology perspective, we need sense and avoid systems in the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles we launch to meet Transport Canada standards for remotely operated aircraft, explains Chief Nolan. “We have to meet the letter of the requirements, and we very much want to meet the spirit of the requirements.” However, the technology for this weight class is not ready yet. “The machines we operate simply cannot carry the weight of the necessary equipment, and we probably couldn’t afford it anyway,” he admits. 

Palmer says the coordinating costs are not that high and, instead of trying to do it alone, responder organizations would benefit from coordinating their efforts. As a founder of CITIG (Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group) Steve Palmer understands how to build national consensus across jurisdictions and organizations. “We are following the same game plan of putting something together, building the leadership organically, getting the people who are most knowledgeable and interested, the ones who will roll up their sleeves and work on getting this to the table.”

Sgt. Marc Sharpe of the Ontario Provincial Police is a UAV pioneer who has been building and flying unmanned aircraft in support of police operations around Kenora in Northern Ontario for almost a decade. He believes there is sufficient goodwill within the first responder community and the aviation community to make a national strategy work. “I have not seen this level of cooperation and information sharing between Police services as I have with UAV technology,” he told FrontLine. “The RCMP have a national program with the most mature organizational structure and, to their credit, are leading in sharing their experience within the public safety community.”

When James Bond of Her Majesty’s Secret Service needs specialized equipment, he turns to ‘Q’, the head of research and development. (“Now pay attention, 007!”) The process for getting new unmanned capabilities to Canadian first responders will be slower and steadier. As Chief Michael Nolan says, “We do need a political champion and we need a willing bureaucrat.” 

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.

© FrontLine Security 2015