Playing by Transport Canada's rules

May 25, 2016 12:12:17 PM


How some early adapters are hoping to capitalize on a burgeoning drone industry


As regulations around what drone users can and can’t do continue to be defined, redefined, refined and codified by government, more and more drones will be entering the market as useful tools for forward-thinking entrepreneurs.

But Dawson Church and Peter Dykstra are two entrepreneurs who aren’t worried about that influx. They’re the owners of Vela Aerial Imaging, an up-and-coming UAV operation that specializes in cinematography.

In December of 2015 they obtained a standing Special Flight Operations Certificate – or SFOC – which permits them to fly within certain parameters anywhere in British Columbia. Now they’re hoping to get their operation off the ground.

Their goal is to target high-end photography and videography for real estate marketing and the film industry. And they aren’t cutting any regulatory corners to do it.



Their equipment matches their ambition: A Cinestar 8 Octocopter, made by Freefly Systems. It’s a $20,000 piece of machinery with a pivoted support – called a gimbal – attached to the base that can carry a camera weighing up to 10 pounds.

“It takes a lot of customization – tweaking – to make it to the point where it can get the quality of shot that these people need,” said Church.

Luckily for them, his partner Dykstra has a background in engineering. That’s what piqued his interest in drones to begin with, and started the whole thing.

“We just happened to have the ideal talent for starting up an aerial photography company,” explained Church. “Two of our partners – who we grew up with – are both in the film industry right now, and they do a lot of photography work. Then we also had someone who has a private pilot’s license and Peter [Dykstra], our operations manager, was just getting into the drone community and had that engineering background that you need to have to understand the inner workings of the drone.”

That was two years ago. After a couple of successful flights with SFOC permits, they were able to obtain a blanket SFOC, and now they’re ready for business.



Now that they have a standing SFOC, they don’t have to keep going back and applying each time they want to fly. That gives them an advantage, but that doesn’t mean they can just do whatever they want.

Since they’re mostly flying in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, they’re going to be in someone’s airspace – and sometimes more than one. A couple of days before the planned flight, they are required to contact the air traffic control, and let them know when and where they’ll be flying.

“It still involves a fair amount of lead time and communication, but it’s significantly less than going through the SFOC process,” said Church.

Now, the only time they need to get in touch with Transport Canada is if they needed to get a shot that their current SFOC doesn’t allow for, like a nighttime shot.

“If we were to do that, we would go back to Transport Canada and say ‘this is what we’re doing at these times, and here are the additional safety procedures we’ll have in place to cover it,’” said Church. “Then if they’re reasonably convinced that it would be a safe operation then they can give us the go ahead and it goes back to dealing with air traffic control.”



Right now, their equipment and permit are both big selling points. But Church admits it won’t take long for cutting edge to turn into common place.

“It can be very difficult for a company to figure out if a drone operator is flying legally, because the regulations are kind of complicated right now – sometimes even the operators themselves don’t know if they’re operating legally or not,” said Church. “But as the regulations become clearer and as more people get into the industry it’s going to be a high growth one for sure.”

That change will affect their business, but that’s where Church is confident Vela can stay ahead of the curve. “At the moment we’re marketing ourselves on our technology, but as the industry progresses we’ll be marketing ourselves on our skills – providing a service,” he explained. “Our pilot is one of the best. Just in the time that we’ve been flying with him thus far he’s shown some massive improvement, and it’s only going to continue. We’ll differentiate ourselves by the quality of the service we provide as opposed to the technology we provide.”

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