In a few weeks, an eye in the Maple Ridge sky will find lost hikers, inspect fires, watch out for bylaw breakers and could even help out police in touchy hostage scenarios.
Two remote-controlled drones will give a local company, Westridge Security Services, that ability, making it among the first in B.C., if not the country.
“There’s nobody I know who’s doing that,” said Westridge owner John Griffiths.
“To actually have a drone registered to a security company, we’re the first ones.”
Griffiths bought the first drone, a QA V 540 a few months ago. It’s a smaller machine that cost about $4,000, was designed to fly in bad weather and could come in handy locating people lost in Maple Ridge’s mountains and forests.
Recently, Westridge got another, the sophisticated, carbon-fibre DJI S800, a $12,000 model with eight arms and eight propellers, which allow it to carry up to seven kilograms of freight, such as food, medicine or a radio.
Both have a flying time of about 40 minutes, with a range of about five kilometres, depending on the equipment carried.
When it comes to how far up the drones can fly, the sky’s the limit.
Griffiths had the hardware on display in Haney Place Mall this past weekend and wowed the RCMP’s emergency response team.
“It’s a brand new part of the business that we’re offering now,” he said.
“It’s basically for hire for search and rescue, for law enforcement … rescue services,” Griffiths added.
Griffiths already flies a remote-controlled model aircraft, so flying the battery-powered drones was a simple next step. The company expects to get its licence soon from Transport Canada, allowing it to fly at any time.
“This is something that’s definitely happening. We always want to be in the forefront of technology.”
Each machine is usually equipped with two cameras, one a high-definition video used for navigating and flying. Goggles give the pilot on the ground a real-time view of what the drone actually sees as it flies.
There’s also a forward-looking infra-red camera that can be used for either finding people or flying.
But it’s the operator on the ground station below who decides what’s recorded. The camera used for flying wouldn’t be recording. Only when it reaches the scene would the operator decide what to record.
“So we’re not recording the whole flight. We’re only recording for our clients, what’s requested.
“The ‘copter itself has no recording capability, none,” Griffiths said.
“The ground station is where the action happens.”
For now, the drones are considered an eye in the sky, but Griffiths said the role could expand, just as the role of police dogs have expanded.
“The process is so brand new. Once we’re actually offering it for service, we probably will be able to find regular patrols for it.”
The drones could save time when Westridge is doing bylaw enforcement for the District of Maple Ridge or for patrolling private properties.
“We’ll be able to launch this and cover a massive amount of area in a short time. For us, it would just be a drone, a two-man team, and it’s done.
“With a drone, we can fly over many sites at once and be able to pin point where vagrants are, be able to log them on a map and deal with them at a later time.
“We’re ready to do that right now. It’s just a service we could provide.”
Similarly, it would save time and expense for patrolling individual properties.
“With a drone you can patrol two or three properties, you can patrol 14 or 15 acres efficiently. We can do video footage of different things they may want to know. There’s so many possibilities it can branch out into and that’s the great thing about it.”
Transport Canada rules however prohibit flying over malls or homes. Instead, a drone would be dispatched to particular sites, where it would be launched, avoiding flying over other areas.
“So if you’re flying over a house, you should have a good reason why you’re doing that, really. The only way we’d be doing that if there was a home that was on fire and the fire was absolutely massive and the fire department called us, that’s the only time you’d see us over your house.”
“We have to have a reason to fly. It has to be a request for service.
“As for taking it out and seeing what’s going on downtown, we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Flying within the city also requires a Transport Canada permit, he pointed out.
Maple Ridge Fire Department asked Westridge if they could use the drone for flying over a sawmill fire this summer. But the machine wasn’t ready.
Recently, RCMP used a drone, equipped with forward-looking infra-red camera, to locate a motor-vehicle crash victim in Saskatchewan. Domino’s Pizza in the U.K. is even using them to deliver pizzas to customer’s doors.
Ridge Meadows RCMP said if a drone is needed, they’re available from RCMP in the Lower Mainland.
Michael McEvoy, deputy commissioner for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, said that under the Personal Information Protection Act, organizations can’t collect information about people without their consent. That law, however, doesn’t apply to journalists or individuals.
McEvoy said the commission will be checking with Westridge to determine specifically what information it intends to collect by using the drones.