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The Aeryon Scout drone (Joshua MacDonald/Joshua MacDonald)
The Aeryon Scout drone (Joshua MacDonald/Joshua MacDonald)

Waterloo firm's drones are the new eye in the sky Add to ...

If you can use Google Maps, you can fly this," says Dave Kroetsch, as he hands over the touch-screen tablet he's been poking. Above us, a toaster-sized drone hovers in the December air. <br/><br/>The Aeryon Scout is the latest "micro UAV" (unmanned aerial vehicle) from Waterloo-based Aeryon Labs. The company's drones have monitored the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and even gathered intelligence on a Central American drug lord's compound. More famously, Libyan rebels used the Scout's thermal camera to keep an eye on Moammar Gadhafi's artillery positions as they marched on Tripoli last year. <br/><br/>The drone could hardly be said to have turned the tide of that war, but, of course, knowing is half the battle. This portable one-kilogram machine has developed a reputation as the surveillance drone that anyone-even ragtag insurgents-can use. The four rotor arms snap into place like Lego and the controls are beyond simple: Poke a spot on the map, and that's where the drone goes. Drag the scroll bar up, and the tiny chopper rises. Drag it down, it descends. <br/><br/>Unmanned aerial vehicles have a long military history, with the U.S. Army developing the first "aerial torpedoes" during the First World War. Today, military purchases of UAVs-mostly by Pentagon officials tracking terrorists through Central Asian mountains-drive a market valued at $6 billion (U.S.)a year, a small but growing slice of which is procured for commercial use. According to one industry association, more than 50 companies in Canada now make UAVs or UAV components. <br/><br/>As for Aeryon Labs, the boyish-looking Kroetsch started the company in 2007 with two friends, a decade after founding the Aerial Robotics Group at the University of Waterloo. About two dozen staff are employed building and selling the Scout as a "high-functionality" low-cost drone. "Everything you need to get going is about $100,000," says Kroetsch. That's about mid-market, price-wise: Competing drones can cost up to $250,000. <br/><br/>The biggest marketing challenge? The perception that drones are tricky to use. Police forces, for instance, have confided their reservations to Kroetsch: "We're not that smart. We've got fat fingers and we break things". To them he explains that the Scout won't fall out of the sky if the battery runs low. "It'll turn around and come back."

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