The future of drone delivery has arrived, but not in time for Black Friday.
Toronto-based Drone Delivery Canada will begin operating drones in the rural community of Moosonee, Ont., in the new year. Its “sparrow” drones can carry up to 4.5 kilograms to remote First Nations communities, which are often cut off because of ice and snow. The only way in is often by helicopter, which is expensive and not always available, which means packages can often take days to deliver.
“So there are a thousand First Nations communities in Canada and the case use with them, it’s absolutely perfect,” says CEO Michael Zahra, “because typically they have very poor health care services because of the remoteness and/or they have very expensive food or poor access to postal mail, poor access to e-commerce.”
Zahra’s company will also operate drones in global transportation logistics giant DSV’s massive new Toronto-area warehouse, carrying sensitive and expensive packages from one end of the facility to the other.
“So instead of too many touchpoints within the facility, we’ll be able to just put the small package or the documentation in a drone and it’ll be much quicker, less people,” says DSV branch manager Maurizio Mariotti. “Some of these things are high value and we will go from one end of the building to the other. And it’s with one touchpoint.”
DSV will be using the sparrow drones, although it plans on implementing larger units when they become available next year. All will be controlled from Drone Delivery’s command centre, where pilots can monitor up to 50 units at a time anywhere in the world.
The two operators Global News saw working had licences to operate helicopters and planes, although that’s not a necessary qualification. Some of the best pilots, Zahra says, learned how to fly through video games.
Drone Delivery Canada was founded six years ago, about the same time Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos boasted that drone home delivery would become a reality by 2019. Transportation regulators in the U.S. and Canada didn’t have the same vision, refusing to relax rules banning the operation of drones near populated areas.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of drones in downtown Toronto, where you have condo buildings and you have traffic and high density of population,” says McMaster marketing expert Marvin Ryder. “If something should go wrong with the drone, then what’s going to happen at that point?”
Chinese company Ehang began testing drone taxis in Dubai in 2017 and earlier this year its CEO commuted to work in a drone to prove it could be done. Considering the position transportation Canada has taken on the issue, taxi drones are likely years, if not decades, away.
But in the U.S., UPS has taken a huge step towards mainstream drone use by getting approval to operate on hospital campuses around the country. Its Flight Forward program has been operating successfully at WakeMed in Raleigh and will soon expand to other hospitals.
Zahra believes Canadian regulations will loosen over time, allowing his company’s drones to fly into more densely populated areas. But until that happens, he plans on focusing on remote applications, including mining and offshore oil platforms.