Drone company taking off

Grand Forks is the only airport right now in Canada that is certified by Transport Canada for drone flights.

Ernest Ziesman (left) and Ron Wyers of Skydrone UAVS

A local company has really taken off and is flying high after getting in on the ground floor of a burgeoning technology.

Skydrone UAVS (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Services) is located at the Grand Forks Municipal Airport and is one of the leaders in drone technology in North America. Skydrone performs a number of inspection operations on hard-to-reach structures such as power lines, wind turbines, towers, bridges, substation facilies and many more in Canada, United States and Brazil.

Ernest Ziesman, president and CEO of Skydrone, grew up in Grand Forks and was excited to be able to return and set up the company at the airport, which is the only one certified in all of Canada for drone testing and training.

He still has family in the area and had been returning to Grand Forks quite often. Back in 1998, he actually set up the lighting system for the airport here.

Ziesman got into the drone field after training under the Canadian Armed Forces where he received a degree in aerospace technology.

“I went down to the United States and did a lot of work in the telecommunication field and with construction,” he said. “I came back to Canada and built 300 metres of power lines in Alberta and a dozen or so substations. At that point I realized it was dangerous to use helicopters. There are regular accidents involving death when using helicopters for maintenance on power lines.”

Ziesman decided to create his own drone for specific use around power lines.

“The technology was just emerging,” he said. “So everything just kind of fell into place: my aerospace degree, the telecommunications, because I back haul all the video back to servers I have in Vegas. I also have a company in Canada where I have a patented surveillance product called CAMOPS.”

Ziesman said he uses a lot of the same technology from the CAMOPS product on his Skydrone drones.

Ziesman started Skydrone up last year and the business became incorporated in May 2014.

The company currently operates eight drones of varying sizes.

“What we want to do is take the manned variant out of it that puts human life in danger,” he said. “Anytime you’re less than 1,500 metres off the ground with an aircraft, whether it be a helicopter or fixed wing, you put yourself in a dangerous situation. You don’t have enough time to react if you have a failure. With the drone that’s no longer the case. If a drone crashes, the only one crying at the end of the day is me as I collect the broken parts with a garbage bag.”

Ziesman said his company’s drone technology is unique and they’re holding on to a technological edge at this point. Ziesman said the advantages of the prototype drone are that it runs everything off an onboard mission computer and it uses a one-terabyte swappable hard drive.

“It uses a 4K, 15 megapixel camera,” he said. “The body is 70g and the lens is about 110g and is interchangeable. On the other side is a 680X420 thermal camera. We can run them in conjunction and also overlay the two video and photo representations in the program that’s embedded in the computer itself and view them online while we’re flying and after the fact as well.”

Ziesman added that he tries to incorporate as much Canadian technology as possible in the drones.

The company hasn’t had too much work so far in B.C. although they did do an inspection for Boundary Electric. Currently Skydrone is preparing to do a stack inspection at a cement company in the Mojave Desert.

“It’s a 90 metre stack they use to dry their cement,” he said. “We’ll do a thermal and high definition video prior to their annual maintenance shutdown. Companies are finding that doing a third dimension inspection to their plants (is very beneficial).”

Ziesman said they also been contracted by Fortis Alberta to do line assessment in Southern Alberta.

There are other drone companies in B.C. and Canada, said Ziesman, but they lack the technological advances developed by Skydrone.

“One thing they do not have is the mission computer package I have,” he said. “They’ll typically use a regular camera with an SD card and they’ll fly it around while it takes photos. One thing I’m doing with this data is I have georeference tag on it, airspeed, altitude, it basically has a flying weather station on it.”

Ziesman also said his drones have 30 minutes of flight time compared to 10-15 minutes for the competitors. The drone is capable of carrying up to 100 cameras at one time, although Ziesman said they usually have four hooked up.

“I can move them to different locations,” he said. “If I need to look up, say, at a component on a vibration damper on a power line, I can position the camera on the top of the drone and look up instead of down or left instead of right.”

Ziesman added that they can also do 3D ground mapping. The company has worked with forestry on fires in B.C. using 3D thermal maps although they are still awaiting certification to film live fires.

“It can be a tool that can save lives,” he said.

Ziesman said that he is excited about being able to offer courses in Grand Forks for drone piloting.

“We’re the only airport right now in Canada that is certified by Transport Canada for drone flights,” he said. “We’re a certified drone testing and training facility here. We have a marked off area by Transport Canada that extends all the way to the end of the runway that we use for training.”

Ziesman said they are just waiting for word from Transport Canada on licensing requirements before putting on the courses.

“We do provide the course and we do have a lot of interest for it,” he said.

“We want to use this for an advanced training facility for learning how to fly in power lines and around structures; how to do industrial inspections, and some of the longer range stuff.”