A local company is taking flight with the soaring popularity of drones.

Colin Filliter and Blair Hunter are partners in SuavAir, an aerial photography and videography venture that uses drones to capture professional imagery from new heights.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are small, remote-controlled aircraft that fly with the aid of propellers mounted parallel to the ground and carry a combined video and still camera.

They have taken off in popularity in the last few years both as a commercial or industrial tool and as a recreational activity.

“They are a lot of fun to fly,” Hunter says. “I can’t fly a plane but I can fly one of these things. You get the same view; it’s breathtaking.”

The rise in popularity of drones with recreationists has created some concerns with federal aviation regulators but commercial operators have proven the usefulness of the technology when operated safely.

“They are a great tool but they need to be used properly,” Filliter says.rebecca-spit

The value of the technology is exemplified by the flight path SuavAir is plotting for itself. With professional foresters at the helm, the company has found great application within the forest industry.

Their promotional material has the distinct air of somebody who’s been there, done that.

Their website says: “Are you tired of: trudging up mountains, tripping over wasp nests, slipping through slash, crunching through cross-ditches and falling from fatigue?”

“Slips, trips and falls are the leading root cause of reportable incidents in the forest industry.”

Now, doesn’t that sound like the manager of a forestry crew? That inside knowledge led to the realization that drone technology can provide a solution.

“Instead of climbing over hazards, we fly over them. Our affordable, high quality aerial videos and photos can significantly reduce the amount of caulk-time required to get the job done, eliminating the risk of injuries.”

Caulk refers to caulk boots, the signature spiked footwear of the logging industry, that allows for the safe traversing of logging sites. “Leave the caulks in camp and let us fly for you,” SuavAir says.  And the message is catching on as the company has found numerous applications within the forest industry.

But they haven’t stopped there, they applied the technology to mapping and 3D modelling and are branching out into real estate, construction monitoring, environmental consulting, incident investigation, tourism and UAV technology consulting itself.

At the heart of it all, of course are the drones themselves. SuavAir has two of them made by DJI Industries, a Phantom 3 and an Inspire model. They also have their eye on stepping up a class of drone in the next year or two.

The UAVs are approximately two feet wide and are air lifted into the sky on the strength of four blades facing upwards and extended out from the centre of the body on four arms. They look like a flying insect, something like a spider. The whirring of the blades is the only sound they make.

When the Inspire model, for example, lifts into the air the arms can lift above the camera housing to provide unobstructed views from the suspended lens.

Depending on the model, they can shoot in High Definition or 4K video as well as 12 mega pixel stills. An interesting feature of the vehicle is the optical flow stabilization function that uses sensors to stabilize the camera making video images smooth and level. They can even fly indoors.

They have two remotes so the operator can fly the vehicle while the client can see the images as well. That way they can have input into the image they want.

The idea for SuavAir came about three or four years ago when Hunter and Filliter were in a logging camp and the foresters had been climbing through slash all day.

“And they were saying they need rocket packs or jet boosters; then they could fly above all these things and a remote control helicopter so that they could videotape everything,” Hunter says.

That’s when the light came on. Ping! Hunter had been on Facebook the day before and remembered seeing something about a remote control device that could record video. After a bit of research by a friend, they came upon the Phantom UAV or drone.

“After that we just had to convince the forest industry that this was a good idea,” Hunter says. Since then, they have also picked up some real estate work along the way. “Lately we’ve started to see more diversification,” Filliter says.

In January, they did some work for the Comox Valley Regional District recording sedimentation in streams and lakes.

They discovered software that allows for the meshing of still photos which can be compiled into a photo mosaic. You can also re-shoot the same area which allows for comparison of conditions over a period of months or years. This permits you to see how a river is changing over time.

“Traditionally, you would use a helicopter or an airplane to get a high-altitude shot,” Hunter says. “So we’re quite a bit cheaper. An hour of our time is about 30 seconds of a helicopter.  Plus the imagery is more stable,” Filliter adds “And you’re not hanging over the side of the helicopter.”

SuavAir also offers service to the tourism industry. Their imagery is ideal for showcasing this beautiful region and province for tourism. SuavAir has partnered with a media production company to produce commercials that feature aerial and ground videography to showcase locations.

A prime example of this is the work SuavAir did on the new Elk Falls Suspension Bridge which opened in Campbell River last year.

A video shoot was spearheaded by Catherine Temple of GoCampbellRiver.com in partnership with SuavAir, Dan Franklin and Jordan Groves of Stagecoach Media and BC Parks. The goal was to produce a high-quality short video on the newly-built suspension bridge for use in the promotion of Campbell River’s newest attraction.

“Traditionally, you would use a helicopter or an airplane to get a high altitude shot.An hour of our time is about 30 seconds of a helicopter.”

Temple explained the scene in an article in the Campbell River Mirror: “The process took a few weeks to set up and a team to manage. On the day of filming the weather was perfect, and park visitors were cooperative and especially interested in the use of the drone.”

While Colin and his assistant were expertly piloting the drone above the canyon walls over complex terrain, Dan and Jordan were employing hand-held cameras mounted on sophisticated gimbals to facilitate filming from the ground while coordinating with Colin via radio.

While all this was going on, Catherine and Brent Blackmun from BC Parks were providing information and fielding questions from park visitors to ensure safety and consistency for each shot.

Another unique application is incident investigation, again within the forest industry. Aerial imagery can be an excellent tool to help understand the root cause of how an accident occurred.

In addition to photo and video, SuavAir’s mapping and 3D modelling services grants investigators the ability to take measurements and look at the incident scene from every angle to gain a greater understanding. The incident investigation can continually review the site conditions from a computer screen long after it has occurred.

Having pioneered the use of drone technology in this region, SuavAir can serve as consultants for anyone looking to apply the technology themselves. And that begins with Transport Canada Certification. They recognize that many operations will benefit from owning and operating their own UAV fleet. SuavAir has acquired multiple Special Flights Operations Certificates (SFOC) from Transport Canada and are familiar with the process.

They can help train employees in using UAVs safely and develop checklists and operations manuals. They will also examine which UAV best suits your needs, recommend insurance providers, and streamline the SFOC writing process so that you get approved quickly. They’ve been through it before and know it is a tedious process.

They can mitigate the headaches to help you save time and money to get certified. So, the skies are wide open to drone technology and Filliter and Hunter have placed SuavAir in the forefront of its use on Vancouver Island.

Photos courtesy: SuavAir