Declan Sweeney Talks About the Canadian Drone Industry & the Drone Fair

Drone expert Declan Sweeney offers insights on the Canadian Drone industry and talks about the Drone Fair event in Calgary.


Rules for operating a UAV for commercial purposes in Canada, set by Transport Canada, have been more lenient than in most of the other countries around the world, United States included, for years.

This competitive advantage has allowed the Canadian drone industry to grow and innovate earlier and faster, even if several countries are now catching up on the regulation front.

In today’s interview for Skytango, we discuss the current state of the industry in Canada with Declan Sweeney, industry veteran.

Declan also talks about the Drone Fair, an event format he launched with Steve Watts.

The Drone Fair, supported by Transport Canada, the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada and Unmanned Systems Canada, aims at bringing innovators, professional drone pilots and general audience together for a one-day exhibition celebrating drone technology.

In the interview we ask Declan about the upcoming Drone Fair Calgary, which is taking place on the 19th of June 2016.

This event, run in partnership with Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and Candrone, will include talks by drone experts, vendor demonstrations, FPV (First Person View) drone racing, and a competition for student teams competing in a challenge for the best problem solving, design and flight using drone technologies.


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Declan Sweeney’s Bio

Declan is a veteran of the Unmanned Systems Industry in Canada having been involved with Unmanned Aerial Solutions since 2002. Declan has been a member of the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council (CARAC) UAV Systems Program Design Working Group for over six years. He is also Managing Director of Unmanned Solutions, an independent consulting group specializing in Unmanned Systems Pilot projects for the commercial sector, Board member of Unmanned Systems Canada and President of the Western Drone Operators Association. He co-founded the Drone Fair in 2015 with Steve Watts.


The Questions for Declan Sweeney

  1. Declan, could you tell us something about your background and your links with the drone industry?
  2. Let’s talk first about the Canadian drone industry. Do you think Canada is ideal for the use of drones in different industries? If so, is that because of its low population density but large geographical area, because of its drone regulation, or because of other reasons?
  3. What does the current drone regulation allow/require in Canada, in particular on the commercial side? Does  Canadian regulation represent a competitive advantage for the Canadian drone industry compared to U.S. regulation?
  4. Are there any innovative players in the Canadian drone industry you would recommend to keep an eye on? What innovations have been spearheaded in Canada by Canadian drone manufacturers, drone software or drone services companies?
  5. Where did the idea of organizing a Drone Fair come from?
  6. This is the 2nd Drone Fair you have organized in Western Canada. Have you had positive feedback from your Vancouver Drone Fair? Can you give us an idea of the audience of that event? Have you plans to hold Drone Fairs in other parts of Canada?
  7. Do you now have a big team behind you to help with organization? Out of curiosity, have you attended any other top commercial drone events, and if so what’s your feedback? Did you take inspiration from them for the Drone Fair?
  8. Why do you think drone flyers should attend the Drone Fair? Will there be industries looking to hire drone flyers at your event?
  9. Which drone manufacturers are attending? Will you have demonstrations from different drone manufacturers? Are there drone software companies exhibiting? Which local and international industries currently using drone technology will be at the Drone Fair?
  10. FPV Drone Racing is on the schedule, do you think people will be excited to attend this part of your event? Is this just for entertainment or do you have many flyers interested in FPV Drone Racing?
  11. Will there be drone insurance brokers at the Fair? Is it important to Canadians to have their equipment insured and to carry PL insurance?
  12. Will you have people talking about the regulations and rules surrounding flying drones in Canadian Airspace?
  13. Are you a drone pilot yourself? If so what drones do you fly and what new drones are you excited about?
  14. What possibilities excite you about the future of drone technology?
  15. Are you inspired by any drone flyers, either aerial film-makers, drone journalists, surveying drone operators or humanitarian drone operators?

The Interview with Declan Sweeney


1. Declan, could you tell us something about your background and your links with the drone industry?

I became involved in the Unmanned Sector over 14 years ago while looking for a solution to alleviate the pilot risk of low-level mapping for the mining sector. Flying closer to the ground gave you better data but increased the risk to pilots. It made perfect sense if we could remove the pilot and replace it with an autopilot. Unfortunately, that technology was only available to the military at the time. At my first conference, I was one of only a few attendees not wearing a military uniform. From there I joined the board of directors of what is now the national Association, Unmanned Systems Canada. I spent 7 years on the board concentrating on commercial application development.

I have arranged and chaired the one-day civil commercial workshop at the annual conference since 2011 and have worked extensively to bridge the information gap between commercial entities and the developers of this technology for commercial use.

I am fortunate to be an industry member of the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council (CARAC) Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) Systems Program Design Working Group, established in June 2010, to make recommendations for amendments to existing regulations and standards and to introduce new regulations and standards for the safe integration of routine UAV operations in Canadian airspace.

I have developed a number of pilot projects for industry-led research groups both in Canada and the USA looking to incorporate this technology into their current operations. I guess you could say that this is my day job and where I stay current with developments across the drone technology sector.


2. Let’s talk first about the Canadian drone industry. Do you think Canada is geographically ideal for the use of drones in different industries? If so, is that because of its low population density but large geographical area, because of its drone regulation, or because of other reasons?

Yes, I would say that the expansive space in Canada is definitely an advantage and that really benefits the commercial applications of drones in Mining, Agriculture, and Energy such as pipelines and power lines. But I think the biggest difference in Canada is that we had a regulatory process which allowed the legal commercial use of this technology at an early stage compared to most other countries.


3. What does current drone regulation allow/require in Canada, in particular on the commercial side, and does Canadian regulation represent a competitive advantage for the Canadian drone industry compared to U.S. regulation?

Under the current regulations, the safe commercial use of drones is arranged through a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). This application process allows Transport Canada to assess the commercial operations on a case by case basis to ensure that the operator is protecting other airspace users and people and property on the ground. In this document, the applicant has to demonstrate how they plan to operate and provide details of their operations, safety & security planning as well their risk mitigation plan to the satisfaction of the Transport Canada Inspector in charge of that region. Many other countries have had to develop interim regulations or procedures to fly which is a very long drawn out process and which has initially given Canada a competitive advantage. But it must also be said that this advantage is being quickly reduced as countries put vast resources and time into making the necessary changes for the use of commercial drones in their airspace, especially the USA.


4. Are there any innovative players in the Canadian drone industry you would recommend to keep an eye on? What innovations have been spearheaded in Canada by Canadian drone manufacturers, drone software or drone services companies?

To be honest, these days it is very hard to keep up with all the drone technology developments we are seeing. What I can tell you is that Canada has had a number of world firsts in this sector. For example, the first drone documented to ever SAVE a life happened in Saskatchewan using a Canadian-built drone (Draganfly) which is currently retired to the Smithsonian. The first documented drone to ever gather low-level data to study a whale or Dolphin population in the world happened off the coast of Vancouver through a collaborative effort between NOAA and the Vancouver Aquarium. There are so many innovators in this sector it would be very difficult to just pick out a few and a disservice to those not mentioned.


5. Where did the idea of organizing a Drone Fair come from?

Steve Watts and I have been friends for years. I have always marveled at Steve’s ability to create fun events and make them happen. One night he asked me if there was an entertainment aspect to drones. My initial reaction was “No” but upon reflection, I remembered the “Wow” factor I see every time we put on a pilot project demonstration for companies to show them what this technology can do and they are blown away. Steve had been looking at the recreation sector and was convinced that there was an opportunity to educate people about the positive use of drones while also educating them on their safe use within our community.

I had to agree with him on that and so we worked together to conceptualize Drone fair as an educational event which could bring massive benefits to the commercial and recreational side of this technology. Although it took over a year to actually plan our first event we were amazed by the reaction we received at Drone Fair Vancouver.


6. This is the 2nd Drone Fair you have organized in Western Canada. Have you had positive feedback from your Vancouver Drone Fair? Can you give us an idea of the audience of that event? Have you plans to hold Drone Fairs in other parts of Canada?

Absolutely, by giving local businesses an opportunity to showcase their products and services we are helping them to network and grow their business within the community and across the country. The audience was very broad but the event catered to anyone with an interest in this technology. Of the 1,100 people who attended, I would say that our audience was broken down by 40% business, 30% recreational and 30% general interest from media and the general public. I would have to say that the feedback was amazing and that everyone who attended who came expecting to see one thing walked away knowing more about the entire sector and its growth potential.

Because we received such positive feedback from everyone Steve and I have decided we need to bring Drone Fair to other cities across Canada and have them experience what this event has to offer them.


7. Do you now have a big team behind you to help with organization? Out of curiosity, have you attended any other top commercial drone events, and if so what’s your feedback and did you take inspiration from them for the Drone Fair?

I have attended a number of events across North America but generally, they have not been Drone technology specific until more recently. Now we are seeing many more events around the world but they are too few and far between. Most small companies cannot afford the huge travel and exhibiting costs associated with these events at this point in their business development unless they are a very large corporation. We created Drone fair to bring this type of event to the innovative small and medium size business owner and are convinced that having it community-based will have the greatest impact on the future of this industry from a recreation and commercial perspective. The impact of Drone fair doesn’t end when the event is over. The networks and business contacts we develop as part of the event continue long after and make the hosting city’s drone community stronger because of it.

To be honest, we didn’t take what others have done in the past to develop this event. It was probably the opposite of that really, and more to do with what other events lacked. Most events tend to cater to one or two specific aspects of this technology either recreational or business where it is application or equipment specific. We felt there needed to be a broader approach and one that concentrated on the need for education, business networking and demonstration of this technology to the general public and media. To achieve this we create partnerships with an educational institution, FPV Flying Clubs, Local business networks, Student competition teams, and local industry. In my mind, because of this community-based approach, Drone fair is a unique event.

We are currently growing our team to ensure that we can customize each Drone Fair event to its City, Local Industry & community. We have added one new member for Drone Fair Calgary but I would like to see that grow as the events themselves grow. Our goal is to have 6 or more events across the country annually and for that we are looking for specific people who share our enthusiasm to help us do that.


8. Why do you think drone flyers should attend the Drone Fair? Will there be industries looking to hire drone flyers at your event?

The commercial sector for drone applications is growing rapidly and the need for experienced and qualified pilots will be necessary for sure. It is vital that anyone interested in this sector get their names out there and connect with companies expanding into this space. These applications require a specific type of pilot to understand how to best capture the required data. You will need the knowledge of your target industry sector if you are to be successful. Education is the key to understanding what will be required of you as a drone Pilot and the best way to do that is to connect with these industries themselves at events like ours.


9. Which drone manufacturers are attending? Will you have demonstrations from different drone manufacturers? Are there drone software companies exhibiting? Which local and international industries currently using drone technology will be at the Drone Fair?

As mentioned earlier, we tend to focus more on the local business community and invite drone distributors and re-sellers compared to the manufacturers. Having that personal connection with the purchase source of your drone means that you have someone to go back to with your questions, can avail of any training or other services provided by the retailer and can inquire about local networking groups that the distributor might be part of. From a business perspective we look at the local rather than international industry for our business focus. In Calgary, we see the Energy and construction sectors as being a focal point of inquiries to present and exhibit at the Fair. For that reason, we are incorporating a business commercial workshop into this and all future events which will take place the day after Drone Fair for commercial operators/industries only. This will be by invitation only so that we can keep the numbers manageable and maximize the networking time we have in this group.


10. FPV Drone Racing is on the schedule. Do you think people will be excited to attend this part of your event? Is this just for entertainment or do you have many flyers interested in FPV Drone Racing?

This aspect of the Fair is very popular with everyone. For most, it’s the thrill of the noise, the lights, the action and the sense of competition watching these small drones fly around at breathtaking speed. For others, it’s understanding how these pilots can actually do this and the skill level they need to react so quickly. Some may look at this as being just a fun event but many others are creating Drone Racing leagues locally and across the country. Just recently in Dubai they hosted the world Drone Grand Prix 2016. The winner was a15-year-oldd from the UK who beat out 150 global teams to win $250,000. I don’t know about you but that just raised the bar for this technology as a recognized future sport internationally.


11. Will there be drone insurance brokers at the Fair? Is it important to Canadians to have their equipment insured and to carry PL insurance?

Yes, I believe Calvin Reich from Capri Insurance will be there. He is one of the most active brokers in the Drone insurance space and is a great resource for all drone related insurance questions. For instance he can tell you that most liability policies sold today actually have an aircraft exclusion in the policy wording. This means that most recreation flyers have no cover in place in case they are involved in an accident and are fully liable for any cost and damages. Many recreation flyers join MAAC to avail of their insurance policy but fail to understand the restrictions on their policy outside of MAAC recognised Fields or events. Some drone operators think that they can get MAAC insurance and then fly commercially which is absolutely not true. Commercial operations under an SFOC require you to produce an insurance policy as part of your application. People need to have the right protection in place and this is something you will learn from the experts at a Drone Fair event.


12. Will you have people talking about the regulations and rules surrounding flying drones in Canadian Airspace?

Absolutely, Drone fair’s theme is education and “know before you fly”. This is a message shared by Transport Canada, Unmanned Systems Canada and the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC). At Drone fair Calgary we will have presentations from Transport Canada and Unmanned Systems Canada on the rules and regulations for flying drones in Canadian Airspace. Mark Wuennenberg from TC will provide the Key note address and be speaking about regulations from a federal level. He is one of the top guys in Transport Canada and we are very lucky to have him as a speaker. Eric Edwards from Unmanned Systems Canada will be providing the rules and regulations from a commercial standpoint and again is one of the best resources for this information in the industry. He is also a member of the CARAC Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) Systems Program Design Working Group and was one of the people responsible for producing the Best Practices document for the industry.


13. Are you a drone pilot yourself? If so what drones do you fly and what new drones are you excited about?

Yes I am. I have a Phantom 3 myself but to be honest I don’t get much opportunity to fly on a regular basis.

I’m most excited about new technology sensors being developed which have a specific industry application. Being able to fly these sensors using a drone give us so much layered data that the applications are endless for their use. In the background the Drone manufacturers are coming up with many safety systems incorporated into the Drone Platform designs that I think will revolutionize their use from a safety perspective. I especially like the obstacle sense and avoid systems which we are seeing as well as incorporated autopilot designs features which restrict you from taking off if you are too close to an airport, aerodrome or helipad. I’m also very excited about the operations apps that can help you with flight planning, flight data logging, equipment maintenance management and airspace access information.


14. What possibilities excite you about the future of drone technology?

I’m very excited about the accessibility of this technology for our students and our kids. This is where new concepts and applications will come from outside of the main stream thinking. That to me makes this a very exciting time to be involved in this industry.


15. Are you inspired by any drone flyers, either aerial film-makers, drone journalists, surveying drone operators or humanitarian drone operators?

For sure, when I hear about people like “doctors without borders” using drones to deliver much needed medical supplies across conflict zones it makes me convinced of the many positive applications of drones from a humanitarian perspective.

From a film-making perspective I learned a lot at our last Drone fair in Vancouver. Because Film-making is a huge local industry we had a drone cinematographer present us with the “evolution of drones in Film”. It was amazing to see movie scenes from films you know like James Bond riding across a rooftop on a motor bike in SkyFall and Harry potters aerial car chase of the Hogwart’s express being filmed using a drone. Amazing stuff!

I’d like to see the use of Drones incorporated into things like Search and Rescue and fire-fighting but absolutely understand that this technology must fit seamlessly into those operations and not endanger the manned elements of those activities before this can happen. I totally agree with the graduated approach that the SAR sector is taking.


Declan, thank you for this great interview. We wish you and Steve the best of luck with the Drone Fair!

The Drone Fair Calgary is taking place in Calgary on the 19th of June 2016:

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