Like so many people before him, Philip Reece was drawn to Salt Spring Island for its natural beauty and its slower pace of life.
But relaxing into that slower pace was easier said than done for Reece, a serial entrepreneur who had already launched four companies. So several years after moving to the Island, he co-founded his fifth business — InDro Robotics — a company that specializes in Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), which can be used for everything from early detection of wildfires to construction monitoring and traffic scanning. The beauty of RPAS is that they can operate in complex situations and environments humans can’t easily reach.
The idea for InDro Robotics was born while Reece was working on aerial mapping with one of his other enterprises, Salt Spring Air, a company that has been servicing Salt Spring Island for almost 15 years. During that time, he found himself thinking that many of the industry flights for his clients in construction, mining, forestry and wildlife could be carried out far more efficiently and safely by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) flights than by airplanes.
Reece began to see that his future in aviation was not in planes, but in drones, but it’s not lost on him that his future business idea occurred while he was flying in a seaplane using 50-year-old technology.
In 2014, he launched InDro Robotics.
“The key in all of my businesses has always been to recruit people who are smarter than I am, who have industry experience,” Reece says. “So we brought all that smart brain power together and bought whatever drones were on the market. [When we] realized they weren’t really going to cut it, we began building our own.”
One of the smart people Reece recruited was Nigel Fisher, former chair of UNICEF, who Reece started working with while InDro was engaged doing humanitarian disaster relief in Haiti and Nepal for the United Nations.
Back in Canada, the company charted its course, establishing its head office and lab on Salt Spring and its software development division in Vancouver. Employing a team of top engineers and pilots, InDro reached out to Transport Canada, which was in the throes of trying to manage the skyrocketing popularity of the drone industry.
“We didn’t introduce ourselves as a drone company,” Reece says. “We introduced ourselves as an aviation company that happened to fly drones — and that rang a bell. Transport Canada recognized our procedures were pulled from the aviation business.”
In 2014, Transport Canada was recruiting new inspectors and InDro got the contract to provide training. By engaging Transport Canada with its aviation focus, says Reece, the company became the first fully compliant drone operator in Canada and the first to fly BVLOS flights.
Today, InDro provides training to a number of police forces and fire departments across Canada. “We worked a lot on the regulatory side, particularly in response to services that first responders could put to work,” Reece says.
The company has accumulated thousands of flight hours and is collaborating with leading bodies such as the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, as well as conducting studies on UAVs to develop new equipment and technologies.
For Reece and his team, the future of drone technology is BVLOS and Artificial Intelligence (AI). InDro’s drones are able to fly longer distances, are smart enough to avoid objects and are capable of sending data between computers and pilots.
InDro made history in August 2019 when one of its drones, flying at 50 to 60 kilometres an hour for about 75 metres, made an 11-minute flight from London Drugs in Duncan to Salt Spring Island. It carried an EpiPen for a customer and a naloxone kit — an antidote to opioid overdoses — to a retired nurse. The drone made a third delivery to Country Grocer’s pharmacy in Ganges. The test flight was part of a pilot project between InDro Robotics, Canada Post and London Drugs to test a new way to serve remote clients who may not live near pharmacies. The service is not yet available to customers.
“We thought the most difficult thing would be flying in mixed weather,” Reece says of the test. “Actually, the harder things were keeping the drugs at a prescribed temperature, keeping the privacy of the customers secure and ensuring the medicines put on the drone were the same ones the customers took off.”
InDro’s research and development and software teams solved these issues by developing a tamper-proof case with a dial-in code and software to control the temperature of the drugs.
“It has definitely opened the door to delivery in remote and rural areas,” says Reece. “InDro Robotics is one of only four companies in Canada with BVLOS certification.”
That same year, the company also carried out trial flights in Renfrew County near Ottawa, replicating several 911 calls and testing whether ambulances or drones were the faster delivery method for automated external defibrillators.
“We arrived between seven and 30 minutes before the ambulances on every occasion,” says Reece.
Michael Nolan, the County of Renfrew’s director of emergency services and chief paramedic, says, “For every minute that passes, your likelihood of survival from cardiac arrest is diminished by 10 per cent, so to beat an ambulance by seven minutes can be the difference between life and death.”
Nolan’s team now flies six licensed drones. “Philip has been creative and collaborative in not only improving our ability to better serve Canadians, he’s also leading the conversation about what’s possible.”
Closer to home, drones built by InDro Robotics played a significant role in helping fight the May 6, 2019 fire that destroyed Victoria’s Plaza Hotel. Able to direct firefighters to hot spots with real-time visuals, InDro’s “drones were instrumental in saving the neighbouring heritage structures,” says Tanya Patterson, City of Victoria emergency program coordinator. “Philip’s a great businessman with a vision of creating drones for good purposes, particularly for first responders and emergency services.”
InDro is also working with UBC on their Safewalk program, where security guards and volunteers escort students on campus at night. Now, drones with lights and cameras are being tested to help students stay safe.
The company recently opened a third office in Ottawa after entering into a partnership with communication giants Ericsson and Nokia, who are working together to develop 5G technology in Canada.
Changing the Image
Reece does acknowledge there’s work to do to overcome drones image problems. In 2018, drones shut down London Gatwick Airport for more than a day. In 2019, Transport Canada fined a man in Toronto $2,750 for flying drones over fans celebrating the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship.
But with companies like InDro showing the many positive uses of drones in everything from emergency response to critical monitoring of the environment, the reputation of drones is changing for the better.
Many challenges remain, but as more autonomous flying machines take to the air, the most pressing question for most people may be: How long will it take before your pizza is delivered by a drone?
This article is from the February/March 2020 issue of Douglas.