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When you’re running a commercial drone company, you’ve got to get used to some pretty anti-social hours. When Vertical spoke to Robert Atwood, co-founder, president and CEO of Kamloops, British Columbia-based Hummingbird Drones Inc. in mid-May, he’d been working pretty much round the clock over a busy weekend of flood mapping by day, and search-and-rescue (SAR) operations at night. And the work upon which Hummingbird has been built — wildfire operations — is almost entirely done at night.
“B.C. Wildfire Management has a policy that they don’t want drones and helicopters in the air at the same time,” said Atwood. “So basically, our days start around at 9 o’clock at night. When grounding occurs on the fire lines, we start flying drones. It’s an almost an immediate transition. But it’s one of the advantages of drones, too — you can fly them all night.”
The drones provide a variety of services for those fighting wildfires, from finding hotspots through the use of infrared cameras, to creating daily fireline maps to aid the management of a fire. And when the sun rises, Hummingbird needs to have not only collected the data, but sorted through the mountains of information the drones will have collected and pulled the relevant needles from the haystack.
“We’re usually delivering a product by about 6 o’clock in the morning, so time is of the essence; we really have to focus on creating efficiencies,” said Atwood.
But it’s the sort of challenge the company relishes. Despite only being in existence for three years, it has consistently broken new ground in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); it was the first UAV service provider to engage in wildfire suppression operations in Canada, and is part of pilot project to evaluate the use of UAVs in SAR operations.
The right tool for the right time
Hummingbird was founded in June 2014 by Atwood and Richard Sullivan (who now serves as the company’s CFO) while the two were still at university. They spent their summers working as initial attack crewmembers for B.C.’s Wildfire Management branch, and it was during a return flight home after a wildfire deployment in northern B.C. that they came up with the idea of founding a drone company.
“We started talking about the huge potential that drones had, especially in improving safety around wildfires through hotspot scanning and spatial awareness, and we just got really excited about it,” Atwood told Vertical. “By the time we got back to Smithers [B.C.], six hours later, we shook hands and said, ‘We’re going to start a company.’ ”
The two spent their spare time that summer exploring the possibilities with different drones. At the end of the summer, they returned to their studies at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, but they continued to develop their plans, working with the support of the university’s business incubator — known as the Generator.
“They ended up really focusing us on specializing, and doing so specifically with wildfire,” said Atwood. “At the time, it was kind of on everybody’s mind that there were drone applications for wildfire, but nobody was doing it. So we just really put our heads down and tried to focus on specializing and creating a product that brought the highest possible value to wildfire operations.”
In a few short months, they were flying drones for the first time on fires.
“It was a pretty exhilarating sequence of events for us,” said Atwood. “At the time, there were no off-the-shelf components for what we wanted to accomplish. We have a 3D printer in the office, and I think the first infrared gimbal mount that we had was a mix of this 3D printed component and K’NEX [a construction toy system] hard-mounted onto the back of one of our drones. And that’s how we operated it early on. Now you look at the equipment we’re using and how far we’ve come… it’s mind-blowing.”
But that first flight wasn’t just a landmark for the two young entrepreneurs; it marked the first time in Canada that a UAV service provider had worked on a wildfire. And, while being a groundbreaker undoubtedly provides opportunities, it also presents its challenges — not least in the form of navigating a regulatory framework as it’s being built.
In August 2014, Transport Canada released a document detailing the knowledge requirements for pilots of UAVs under 25 kilograms (55 pounds), and these form the basis for Hummingbird’s pilot training program. The requirements include knowledge of items including the Canadian Aviation Regulations, general operating and flight rules, navigation and meteorology. Once in the field, Transport Canada requires at least two people to operate a UAV — a pilot and a visual observer — and the UAV must be operated within line of sight.
The company has several Special Flight Operations Certificates from the regulator to allow its various operations, with the most notable being that which allows it to fly over a fire at night.
Drones in operation
Today, Hummingbird has five employees, with three trained as pilots and two working on software development. Its fleet includes six drones, all produced by DJI: three Inspire 1s, two Matrice 100s, and a brand-new Matrice 200. All are quadcopters, with weights ranging from about six to almost 10 pounds. According to Atwood, they can spend about 15 to 20 minutes in the air before the battery needs to be recharged, and can self-stabilize in winds up to 19 miles per hour (30 kilometers per hour).
Typically, the company will take just one or two on any given job, with just one running at time.
“We have about 10 batteries for each one, and a generator that goes along with it,” said Atwood. “As soon as a drone comes down, you flip the batteries out and put a new one in, so you’re really not grounded for any period of time whatsoever — you’re just able to keep flying consistently all night long.”
While Hummingbird has the ability to fly the drones using waypoints, it prefers to control them manually. “Our preference is to maintain somebody’s hands on the controls the entire time,” said Atwood. “There’s not really a huge efficiency increase from flying autonomously as opposed to just flying manually.”
With the hardware Hummingbird uses — from the drones themselves to the mounts, gimbals and cameras — now available off-the-shelf, the company concentrates its development efforts on the software side of the operation. Through Atwood and Sullivan’s connections at the university, they’ve had access to a pool of software development talent to create programs customized to their services, allowing them to quickly sort through the enormous amounts of data the drones collect during each flight.
The push to focus on software development came when they first started to find there was a disconnect between being able to capture infrared imagery with a drone, to turning that into a usable and effective product for fire operations, said Atwood.
“What we developed is this program that parses through the infrared datasets — it separates false positives and real heat, provides coordinate information or geospatial information for each one of those hotspots, and then it outputs them in a shp and kmz format,” he said.
A growing presence
Hummingbird’s work has already taken it to the four corners of British Columbia (with the exception of Vancouver Island), and the breadth of its operations continues to expand.
Since the fall, it has been part of a pilot project overseen by Emergency Management B.C. to evaluate the use of UAVs in SAR.
“Something that we found pretty early on was that there wasn’t a huge difference between finding hotspots on a wildfire, and finding heat that’s from a human body,” said Atwood. “We’ve already had numerous successful searches, and it’s been a really incredible tool, especially for searching at night, in the winter, when the drone can cover huge areas of ground relative to a ground searcher.”
He said a drone doesn’t replace the need for a helicopter; instead, it enables searchers to explore areas, such as steep canyons or gorges, that a helicopter would be unable to reach, or go out in conditions that would ground a helicopter.
Another recent expansion has been into the realm of flood mapping, where the drone can fly over a flooded area to provide maps for incident management teams to assess and use for planning decisions, or to assess the damage caused.
“We do actively pursue wildfire operation, but with a lot of these other things, often we’ll just have someone that gives us a call to ask us if something would work,” said Atwood. “Sometimes the ideas are pretty crazy, but often they can boil up and become a very high value product or service. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in terms of the outreach and the things people’s creativity have led us to.”
Hummingbird received early validation of its work with a nomination for Atwood as Young Entrepreneur of the Year from Startup Canada in 2015 (he was named winner in the B.C. and the North region).
“The work that we do is having a major impact on the way that wildfire operations are being conducted, especially with the quality of data that we can provide,” said Atwood. “The award was a huge honor, obviously, but it was purely a reflection of what our whole team has been working on.”
Driven by enthusiastic and energetic pioneer companies like Hummingbird, the drone industry has come a long way in just a few short years. And for a young company in a young industry, it’s a very exciting time.