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Drones in the city: How Toronto's getting creative with flying robotsNavigating new Transport Canada regulations to beautiful – and innovative– effect






There’s something about drones. Equipped with HD cameras, GPS and their own WiFi, these flying robots can offer a neat way to explore the city’s skyline and public spaces. 

Drones produce the kind of dreamy photo and video footage that would previously cost tens of thousands to obtain, and so far a legion of Torontonians have eagerly jumped on board. The most recent jaw-dropping example of drone-enabled video has to be Toronto Skyline Porn, a stunning view of Toronto from above, shot over the span of three years. But the video contains a few flights which would now be deemed illegal, thanks to the new Transport Canada regulations that came into effect this fall which restrict flight within 30 metres of people and buildings, and higher than 90 metres from the ground.

It might sound like a good idea to regulate this hobby. Pilots express concern over hitting drones in the air, and it’s still quite common for light drones to get literally carried away by winds and crash. But any new set of rules comes with a cost.
For example, it might not be possible anymore for hobbyists to fly drones at large public events. Local tech evangelist Matthew Potter loved flying his drone over Nathan Phillips Square for the special Heart and Stroke Foundation collaboration with the Toronto Zombie Walk. Looking at the new rules that cover unmanned aircrafts use, Potter wonders if he’d ever get another chance to do it.

“Doubtful I’d fly there again due to both safety and wind, but it was really one of my favourite times I flew,” he says. After all, between the crowd’s reaction and the purpose of the shot, Nathan Phillips Square was a great place for footage.

Potter doesn’t mind the new drone regulations. “This city can become a wind tunnel sometimes. This has to do with safety and not much to do with privacy. Most of these drones are lightweight and can easily be carried away or blown out of control.”
Gavin Fung, another Torontonian fond of his drones, says the new rules definitely affected hobbyists. “I fly my drone using a pair of vision goggles, so I see what the drone sees. It has a wireless range of one kilometre,” Fung says. “Until very recently, I would just go to the park, and fly drones. But now it's getting into privacy issues, and I understand the laws are being implemented for a reason, but then again, the changes affected me. For instance, they banned drones in national parks, so it will be difficult now to fly in these areas to take beautiful shots.

Controversial or not, drones also represent a promising business opportunity. Marcus Dickinson, CEO at X4 Drones, Canadian reseller of Hubsan drone quadcopters, grew up with Star Wars and always had a fascination with new technology. Dickinson sees drones as a revolutionary technology and business opportunity. He says it’s becoming practically impossible to fly drones in the city.

“There are many in the industry that would say Toronto hates drones,” says Dickinson. “I prefer to think that Toronto loves its people. It's a challenge to get special exemptions within the city, and to be honest, we've had to turn down work simply because of how strict the city currently is. I think with higher qualification standards for drone pilots and an increased awareness of drone safety, the city of Toronto will continue to develop lasting relationships with companies such as ours." X4 Drones mostly sell to serious hobbyists and pros, as well as provide flight training to educate people on the basics of flight, all the transport regulations and privacy laws.

Interestingly enough, Toronto Reference Library leads the way in its adoption and popularization of new technologies, drones included. (Take a look at this awesome drone's eye view of the library tour!) Just a couple of weeks ago, 10,000 people gathered at Toronto Reference Library for Toronto Mini Maker Faire, where X4 Drones flew some smaller aircrafts from its impressive drones fleet. It’s hard to think of a better way to normalize drones than seeing them fly right in the library, one of the most well-known and accessible public spaces in the city. 

And the demand just keeps growing. Just ask Toronto-based startup DreamQii, whose PlexiDrone compact camera drone Indiegogo campaign just hit over one million in funding from 4,337 backers. This drone will be the first of its kind, and designed and manufactured in Canada.

Getting Creative With Drones

Move over Amazon Prime Air. Toronto's Heather Leson, programme manager of social innovation at Qatar Computer research Institute works with the UN on a MicroMappers digital humanitarian efforts and disaster response that uses drones for mapping in the Philippines. The project helps capture footage, assess damage and map disaster areas for search, aid and rescue operations. "Drones provide the potential for citizens and humanitarians to obtain post-disaster low level imagery to do damage assessments. I think what we learn in humanitarian emergencies could also be applied to food security, like our recent MicroMappers deployment for coconut damage, and environmental protection," says Leson. MicroMappers works with thousands of digital volunteers, in partnership with the UN, Qatar Foundation, SkyEye Inc., and StandbyTaskForce.

“People in all human history wanted to fly, and with planes that mission is now accomplished. However, drones make it extremely cheap and accessible to all people of all ages — seeing footage live on your smartphone from hundreds of feet in the air still feels like a miracle,” says Evgeny Tchebotarev, Co-founder of 500px. Toronto-based startup 500px, an online platform for photographers to share their work, owns an office drone, and the team has been known to take it for a spin and test what’s on the market.

“I'm monitoring the situation. The rules are obviously changing fast, and will continue changing as the industry produces more and cheaper drones, thus dramatically increasing the market size. I'm afraid that soon drone flying will be prohibited altogether in the cities in North America, so it's a good opportunity to go and shoot now,” says Tchebotarev. His team has been collecting examples of great aerial photography from planes, helicopters and drones, and publishing drone reviews.

Patrick Dinnen, a creative technologist in Toronto, managed to complete the quadcopter powered light painting project called Weird Illuminated Sky Paintings (WISP), before the new rules took effect. Dinnen and friends played with the idea to experiment with drones and light. They ended up attaching a flexible lightweight circle strip of LED lights to the quadcopter, and flying during the night with a still camera and long-exposure.

“The camera captured the trail of light. We programmed it to do different patterns of light to create various types of images and capture the photographs. We were flying our drones close to High Park which under the new rules would place us within 9 km. from both Pearson and the Island airports. The new rules also forbid any night flying, so that kind of work we did would be impossible to do today,” says Dinnen.

While the rules keep chasing technology, it’s still possible to occasionally spot drones in the city skies and public spaces. Some of the best drones for beginners include DJI Phantom drones, Hubson X4 series, and Parrot AR Drones 2.0. To read up on the current rules related to unmanned air vehicles, model aircraft, remotely piloted aircraft systems, drones, please head over to Transport Canada

What’s undeniably cool is that the use of drones fall under Civil Aviation regulation. Let’s keep our drones civil, Toronto.


 
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