There is a buzz in the air over Slemon Park these days.
The noise, literal and figurative, is from Lee Dodson and his new enterprise, the Atlantic Drone Flight School.
The venture is the culmination of his lifetime of work in the drone, remotely operated underwater vehicle and film industries.
And, pardon the pun, his business has taken off since launching in March.
Though, it is not exactly how Dodson pictured retirement.
“No, not really,” he laughed. “I was just going to do my own little thing and advertise on Facebook or whatever and go and do my stuff. But everybody kind of encouraged me to step up the game.”
Dodson and his wife, Janet, are originally from Cornwall, United Kingdom, but moved to Halifax in 2010 and to Summerside in 2017.
“We felt at home in the first five minutes,” he said.
Until their move to the Island, Dodson was working one month on and one month off in the Middle East and Africa, training other drone and remotely operated vehicle pilots.
When he decided he’d had enough of the travel-for-work life, he and Janet retired to P.E.I.
“Retired for about five minutes,” he chuckled.
It didn’t take long for him to realize his particular skillset might be in demand here. He established Skygate Drone Services as a hobby project but quickly found himself busier than ever.
Drones are versatile pieces of equipment with a constantly expanding list of capabilities.
Dodson has some high-quality cameras mountable to his drones and a background in cinematography, so he quickly found himself shooting content for real estate companies, government agencies, television and film companies and the media.
He also has sensors capable of detecting the amount of chlorophyll in plants from a distance, which allows his drones to quickly scan a crop field and determine problems like pests or nutrient deficiencies.
Among other applications, his drones can do structural inspections, help with search and rescue operations and do surveying work for construction projects.
Summerside writer and filmmaker Susan Rodgers worked with Dodson during an important shoot for her feature film, Still the Water.
Dodson used his drones to film a lobster fishing setting day on the Island and Rodgers said she has received compliments about the beauty of that footage in the final film.
“It was a magical setting day, some say the most beautiful in 40 years, and we would never have secured such breathtaking sunrise footage without Lee and his drone. Shooting that morning was surreal. Such beautiful images, filmed by a drone operator from my hometown,” said Rodgers.
Rules for recreational drone users:
- Anyone operating a drone weighing between 250g and 25 kilograms is required to have a drone pilot certificate
- Pilots must be able to see their drone at all times
- Drones must fly below 400 feet
- Drones cannot come within 1.9 km of heliports and 5.6 km of airports and controlled airspace
- Drones must stay away from emergency sites and advertised events like concerts or parades
- Drones must stay at least 30 horizontal meters away from bystanders
Source: Transport Canada
Summerside Police Services have also made use of Atlantic Drone Flight School.
Det.-Const. Grant MacLeod recently underwent training at the facility because the police service now has access to a drone to help with search and rescue and other duties.
“Having Lee and his training facility in Slemon Park is of great value to Summerside Police Services,” said MacLeod.
“There is a lot more to flying a remotely piloted aircraft system than most would think, especially in the police sector.”
Dodson was already busy offering his services as a drone pilot, but in 2018 he was appointed as a Transport Canada Advanced Drone Flight Reviewer, which meant he could certify drone pilots on behalf of that federal agency. After that, he started travelling around Atlantic Canada teaching flight classes but quickly realized it would be more convenient to set up his own facility closer to home.
Slemon Park was an obvious choice, he said.
By flying at the former military base, Skygate has access to hangers for indoor training, an adjacent unused runway, Malpeque Bay - which offers a safe, unpopulated, testing space - is nearby, and because it’s an active airport, students get the extra real-life experience of dealing with all the appropriate safety precautions.
“It was a no-brainer for me when I saw the place and I haven’t looked back.”
There is potential for the drone industry here in Summerside, said Dodson, and he’s looking forward to being a part of it.
“A lot of people are surprised and really appreciative here on P.E.I. They never realized there is this kind of skill, knowledge and facility right on their doorstep.”
Shawn McCarville, president of the Slemon Park Corporation, said they are happy to have Skygate as tenants.
“We are excited that Lee and Skygate have chosen Slemon Park as their home and we want to help them become successful in this new, exciting and innovative unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry,” said McCarville.
“Having a professional drone pilot training company like Skygate that has a close working relationship with Transport Canada and other leading UAV organizations from across Canada provides opportunities in the future for growth and expansion within the rapidly expanding UAV industry.”
Having access to the park’s facilities has also helped Dodson attract a big new partner, Volatus Aerospace. It a sizable network of smaller drone-operating companies and Dodson has recently secured a deal to integrate Skygate into the company.
The arrangement, among other benefits, means Dodson can now bid on larger contracts he would never have been able to fill himself.
“There’s an incredible amount of applications (for the technology) and being part of Volatus Aerospace is really going to enable us to reach out and become leaders,” said Dodson.
All the extra work means he is, finally, looking for some help. He expects to hire at least six people in the next several months, including drone pilots, instructors and sales and administration staff.
These are exciting, but busy, times, he said.
“Hopefully I won’t get too old before I have time to put my feet up. But I enjoy it. Flying drones is fun, what can I say.”
Learn about drones
Atlantic Drone Flight School is hosting a free introduction to drone piloting on Saturday, Dec. 5 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Anyone interested in attending is asked to pre-register by calling: 902-432-0651 or emailing [email protected].
The class will take place at the school's facility at 50 Aerospace Blvd, Slemon Park.
If this event is successful, the facility may make this a regular feature of its programming.