Drones in the Backcountry pt. 2

Drones in the Backcountry pt. 2

I’m sitting here thinking about what to write.  I started a summary of drone rules in the U.S. and Canada – an analysis of how the new drone rules affect commercial UAV users – and stopped after realizing how dry and boring it was.  It could be summed up like this:

  • The USA now requires pilot permits and Canada probably will too (at least for flights within 9 km of a built up area).
    • This is likely to nudge end user organizations toward outsourcing operations to companies who are professional UAV pilots rather than buying their own UAVs.
    • This will have a negative effect on search and rescue and emergency (police, fire, wildlife, environmental) response times, as they have to call in an specialist who may be away, or at a wedding after having a few drinks & unable to fly, rather than grab a UAV that anyone can pilot out of their backpack or vehicle.  Transport Canada is considering establishing a lower weight category free of the built-up area requirement and we hope they do establish it for this reason.
  • You can fly at night, meaning you can continue an aerial search operation after helicopters are grounded, but you need to get a special Certificate of Waiver or SFOC for all night operations and have a suitably lit UAV


Sucks because Mt. Baker National Forest would be an epic place to fly a drone

Now – our earlier post on using UAVs in the backcountry – that was interesting.  We talked about how you could use a small portable aerial scout to search for a way to hike out of a thick forest, a way down a steep cliff when backcountry skiing, or to scout white-water rapids ahead.  This opens up a whole new use for UAVs as a survival item.  Along those lines we have another short story to share…


The Auriol Range is a small part of the great mountain ranges that straddle the border between BC, the Yukon Territory and Alaska.  The larger range contains Canada’s highest mountain, Mt. Logan, which looks pretty cool on Google Earth.


Mt. Logan in the foreground.  If you walk around the left of Mt. Augusta (center background) you descend a massive glacier that drops suddenly from the 1500m/5000ft icefields into the Pacific Ocean, fanning out spectacularly.

But the Auriol Range is much closer to the highway and more accessible.  You can hike for a day or two from Haines Road up Quill Creek through the canyons, thick brush and willow trees and end up nearly in the center of the range.

It’s clear that not unlike rafting a long river in Alaska, the area that these valleys cover is vast and open.  A quad-rotor may not be the best choice to search for someone here, or to scout the safest way to travel or bypass the difficult canyon.  In fact, there were several times I had to foray for an hour or more up steep slopes only to find the way impassable and have to double back and find another route.


We started building the Sentry for a couple specific search and rescue uses, most of which would occur in a place like British Columbia, Canada where the canyons are tight, steep and narrow.  A fixed wing UAV wouldn’t be able to fly slow enough to do a detailed search, or fly deep down into the canyons to search.  In those types of ravines and canyons a small hovering UAV is crucial, just like it is in an urban environment.  But in places like the Yukon & Alaska (and places like Texas, Arizona, Australia and more) a multi-rotor simply isn’t going to have the flight time and area coverage that you want.

Two potential solutions are to:

a) have one of each, preferably with interchangeable components such as batteries, cameras and more

b) have a hybrid tilt-rotor or other aircraft which can function as both

The advantage of a hybrid design is that both vehicles are integrated into a single package, potentially saving you weight and cost to buy two separate drones.  On the other hand, a hybrid vehicle generally has to carry two sets of propulsion equipment, meaning that the flight time in either mode is reduced versus a dedicated fixed wing or multi-rotor because of the added weight.  In the aerospace world, where weight is everything, the best tool for the job is sometimes worth paying a little more, and carrying a little more for.  Every aerospace engineer you talk to will have a different philosophy, but mine is that with all the weight and performance constraints you have in an aerospace design, hybrids using conventional designs (tilt-rotors etc.) are usually not a good solution and using a specific tool built for the job is better.  Some hybrid designs, specifically those that are more integrated and elegant at changing between vertical and forward flight, do not need so many complex additional gears and components.

And it’s definitely worth bringing the right tools when you go on a backcountry expedition.  Trust me on that one.