Far in the north of Northern Ontario, the twin communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory present a real challenge for delivering the necessities of life. Here, where the Moose River flows into James Bay, a carton of orange juice can cost up to $20 and a bad winter storm can leave the residents — who are mostly members of the Moose Cree First Nation — without diapers or medicine for long stretches of time. That precarious position may be ending soon, thanks to one innovative company and the drone technology they’re using to connect remote communities like these with the larger world around them.
The company in question is Drone Delivery Canada, a Canadian tech firm that has recently entered into a partnership with the Moose Cree First Nation to test pilotless drone delivery techniques in these remote areas. The company’s drones are still in the testing phase. Each stands less than four feet tall and carries only a tiny cargo, but these small machines have the potential to work out the bugs in navigating the 2.5-hour flight up from Toronto. Eventually, it is hoped, larger drones can make the trip with minimal to no human intervention. In this remote community, where cargo arrives by boat and a medical evacuation helicopter might be hours away, stable flight traffic with the more populous south that costs no more than the energy to spin the propellers is definitely welcome. Soon, this sort of drone might be welcome elsewhere in Canada.
The Benefits of Drone Tech
Drone Delivery Canada is already thinking beyond the limited Toronto-to-Moosonee route and speculating about forming partnerships for commercial deliveries to First Nations communities all over the country. Other companies have expressed an interest in this potentially huge new market, and soon Canada’s skies might be filled with unmanned drones zipping back and forth to remote towns. The potential benefits of drone cargo flights go further than bringing down the cost of orange juice above the Arctic Circle; in time, these pilotless machines might start operating on delivery routes between more settled towns farther south. The benefits are almost too many to list:
- Pilotless drones can fly without expensive air crews, greatly reducing one of the major costs of shipping cargo.
- They can operate with minimal supervision, so air traffic control can also be largely automated.
- Drones are purpose-built, with none of their volume or weight being dedicated to a cockpit, since they typically don’t carry people.
- They only fly the way they’re programmed to, which all but eliminates human error from the equation, reducing the risk of accidents, lowering insurance costs and allowing much denser stacking of air-travel corridors.
- Vertical take-off and landing drones can operate almost anywhere, without the need for an airport or runway.
Drones for Everything
The advantages of using drones for delivery service are so great, and innovators in the field are already thinking about other uses these clever machines can be put to. Drones are already in use for aerial reconnaissance, for example, as when a land developer wants to get a clear picture of the property he’s buying or a disaster-relief agency needs to see the damage caused by fire or floods. Drones are also conceivably useful for police and military applications, rural firefighting, and even passenger flights.
The Wild Wild North
Canada has a huge leg up in this new industry. Drone Delivery Canada is a publicly traded corporation in both Canada and the United States, but the recent adoption of strict rules for drone flights in the United States has made test flights and unscheduled stops more expensive and difficult to arrange there. In Canada, where such throttling regulations haven’t yet been passed, upstart companies have the opportunity to experiment with routes, altitudes, landing procedures, and the rest of the minutiae of a new flying technology. This "wild north" environment has all but guaranteed that a lot of the future development of these systems will be done in Canada, with the associated benefits of getting in on the ground floor of an industry falling mainly on the domestic market.
Possible New Rules for Canada’s Drones
Things may not stay this free for long. Transport Canada, which regulates air traffic for the country, has proposed a set of rules governing the use of drones by civilians. These rules, which were written with an eye toward simplicity and safety, split drones into two weight categories (basically, more or less than 1 kilogram) and prescribe the required distances they can operate from airports and urban areas. If you’re a private, recreational drone operator, for example, your lightweight machine just needs to have contact information printed on it and keep at least 5.5 kilometers away from airports. Heavier units, such as those being pioneered by Drone Delivery Canada, call for a special licence and liability insurance, as well as operating under a suite of restrictions regarding populated areas and other vehicles. They may also have to operate within existing air traffic control networks, for now at least.
Drone technology holds out the promise of rapid, point-to-point commercial deliveries, and Canadian entrepreneurs have not been slow to experiment with the new machines. Proposed drone regulations might change the rules for operating unmanned vehicles, which makes this early period of experimentation even more important for tomorrow’s regular drone services.