A Toronto tech company is about to start testing drone deliveries to a remote First Nation community in Northern Ontario, in the first endeavour of this kind in Canada.
Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) and Moose Cree First Nation announced Oct. 4 that they had reached an agreement to start a commercial program aimed at enabling shipments of items like mail, food, and medical supplies via drone.
Drone deliveries could be a game-changer for Canada’s remote communities, said Tony Di Benedetto, CEO of DDC, a publicly traded company that’s listed in both Canada and the U.S.
A fleet of tiny flying machines could help bridge the logistics gap that makes life so expensive in much of northern Canada.
“This technology is new, and we hope also to help our neighbouring communities address the high costs associated with the delivery of goods to their communities,” Patricia Faries, chief of Moose Cree First Nation, said in a statement.
The test flights will be centered around Moosonee and Moose Factory, about 20km south of James Bay, where a carton of orange juice easily sells for above $20.
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But deploying drones in rural areas is also a “launching pad” for the use of commercial drone deliveries in suburban and, eventually, urban areas, said Di Benedetto.
Canada’s northern geography is the ideal testing ground for drone shipments, said Hugh Liu, founder of the Flight Systems and Control Lab at the University of Toronto, of which DDC is an industry pattern.
And the country’s logistical conundrum when it comes to servicing its northern half means that the Canadian government is keenly interested in exploring options that could lower transport costs and improve access to remote communities, Liu added.
In other words, when researchers and entrepreneurs talk drone deliveries, Canadian regulators tend to listen.
That’s another factor that has made Canada particularly attractive for drone companies, especially after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approved strict rules for testing and developing the technology south of the border.
In the initial testing phase, the drone will fly only within Moosonee and Moose Factory, said Di Benedetto. The maximum flight length will be 10km and the drones will take off from and land on helipads, not people’s doorsteps and driveways.
But even short-haul flights have the potential to make a big impact, he said.
“The actual goods arrive via train in these communities, but the challenge is moving them off rail and in and around the areas,” he told Global News. “That seems to be the bigger problem.”
For example, the Moose River runs between Moosonee and Moose Factory, which makes it tricky to deliver things like medical supplies quickly in an emergency. Drones could make a crucial difference.
And they could also create jobs. DDC is working with universities to develop training curricula to teach local youth to operate mission control centers for unmanned aircraft to enable remote communities to service their own drone infrastructure and then, possibly, bring that knowledge to others abroad.
The partnership between the Moose Cree First Nation and DDC will likely yield a number of important lessons.
Part of it will be about tackling technical challenges such as ensuring the accuracy of delivery and the safe and reliable transport of parcels, said Liu.
But part of it is also about showing whether there’s a good business case for commercial drone logistics, he added.
For its part, DDC is clearly thinking about the bigger picture, too.
Its website lists anything from restaurant meals, groceries and medicines to dry cleaning as things that Canadians could soon receive via tiny flying machines.
As for when that will happen, Liu is optimistic.
“I would say it’s years away, not decades.”
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