This article was published in Canadian Aviator magazine – September-October 2020 issue.
North of Toronto in the City of Vaughan is an innovative company called, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC). This is no ordinary drone company – it is not building toy drones – they are in the commercial drone business and work on a global scale. They are a serious business, doing serious work.
Drone Delivery Canada is a drone logistics infrastructure company. It is not just about the drones, but certainly drones are a striking part of their logistics portfolio.
They are building three drones in their current fleet, they include the Sparrow, Robin, and Condor.
Moving large payloads meant that they had to design and plan to build-out automated depots, between which the drones will fly. Think of them as mini airports. These depot landing zones are all equipped with the requisite drone infrastructure: scales for weight and balance calculations, workstations for logging the packages, and dispatch systems to launch and track the drones. This infrastructure is highly automated to ease the operational burden requirements.
DDC has written an advanced, automated battery management system that ensures flight performance and optimizes flight endurance.
All of these developments are wrapped within their wide-ranging software management system called, DDC Flyte, that allows their drones to fly safely within controlled airspace.
These drones will typically fall into two categories of use cases:
- Difficult access locations, such as remote community deliveries for eCommerce and last mile deliveries for industries like oil & gas, mining, offshore drilling rigs, etc.
- Time sensitive deliveries, for example medical applications, humanitarian or emergency aid situations, urgent delivery of emergency repair parts, etc.
These innovations are backed by patents, one registered and eight other patents that are pending. So, there has been a lot of significant investment into engineering efforts undertaken to develop ground-breaking solutions that solve the hard problems faced in Canada for drone flights. They proudly own all their intellectual property and have established themselves as a global market leader.
DDC stands alone at this time, leading the way towards high-end ‘commercial’ drones that can operate legally and safely in already congested airspace. Other drone developers, like Zipline, Matternet, Flirtey, Google, and Amazon PrimeAir are focused on consumer package delivery for small items, even rapid delivery of treats like coffee and donuts. DDC customers say that their commercial drones are further along the R&D path compared to the consumer delivery inventors.
UPS Flight Forward was launched as a subsidiary of UPS in 2019. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Flight Forward a Part 135 certification, which gives them permission to operate a “drone airline.” Part 135 certification is the same certification smaller airlines, such as charter airlines, receive from the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation in order to operate.
Drone Delivery Canada is a publicly traded company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange–Venture.
They have a prestigious partnership with Air Canada and are actively pursuing new accounts together for drone delivery services.
The drone delivery industry is expected to explode onto the market and the growth potential for the company looks very promising if they can overcome the airspace challenges that all drone delivery services face. For traditional private, commercial, and airline pilots alike, this shared airspace issue causes serious worries raising many practical concerns, so Transport Canada’s role to keep the airspace safe is vital.
The global drone market will grow from $14 billion in 2018 to over $43 billion in 2024 at a CAGR of 20.5% according to ResearchAndMarkets.com.
According to Goldman Sacks Research, “The fastest growth opportunity comes from businesses and civil governments. They’re just beginning to explore the possibilities, but we expect they’ll spend $13 billion on drones by 2020, putting thousands of them in the sky.”
Transport Canada has imposed strict rules and regulations on drones. And they have the teeth to back up this legislation with hefty fines and suspensions. Transport Canada has established some of the toughest rules of any country regarding drone flights. But these current rules are largely aimed at consumers and amateur drone flyers. For the commercial drone operators, some new regulations are necessary.
With the rapid growth of eCommerce and the acceptance of online shopping in general, there is a massive shift underway in the retail industry. Home delivery is growing at a phenomenal pace. According to a projection from research group Forrester, online retail in Canada will generate a spend of $39.9 billion in 2019, accounting for 9.5 percent of all retail transactions. So, how will these deliveries be made in the future? Will drones be the primary delivery platform? When will consumer package delivery be done by drones displacing contract couriers and Canada Post? Some argue that drone deliveries for consumers in urban and suburban areas is still years away. However, maybe deliveries in rural and remote areas will come first? Only time will tell.
Finding skilled drone pilots is one of the barriers slowing future market growth. The DDC answer is fully autonomous drones with a centralized Network Operation Centre in Vaughan, where human operators can intervene if required. The drones use standard GPS to fly their flight plans, but as they near the depot destinations, they add-in optical vision systems to target a landing platform for pinpoint accuracy.
Drone Delivery Canada is currently focused only on opportunities in the business-to-business sectors. They see deliveries for medical supplies, mail, parts, and food as viable short-term options today. Flying drones within campus environments is their first stage scenario. Many large-scale customers have entered into discussions for deployments for public warehousing, parts manufacturing, medical testing, equipment delivery, and even combined with commercial aviation.
A global warehousing company, DSV Canada is building a massive 1.2m sq. ft. warehouse outside Toronto. They announced a commercial agreement with Drone Delivery Canada, through its sales agent Air Canada Cargo. DSV Canada will deploy DDC’s drone delivery platform at its new head office and warehouse in Milton, Ontario. These drones will remain on their property and overfly from one end of the warehouse to the other to expedite movement of controlled goods faster and with fewer touchpoints than they could transit end-to-end indoors.
Another 2020 deployment will be at the Edmonton International Airport. This is Canada’s largest airport by size with more than 7,000 acres shared by dozens of businesses from airlines, maintenance, FBOs, cargo, retail, and more. It is a hub facility for Northern Alberta and Northern Canada. The total catchment area is 1.8 million residents. It served 8,254,121 passengers in 2018. DDC will provide drones to fly within the perimeter of the property to deliver packages, thereby saving time and money and speeding up these urgent deliveries within the airport footprint.
Drone Delivery Canada inked the agreement with the Edmonton Regional Airports Authority to operate out of the Edmonton International Airport and the Villeneuve Airport. This makes Edmonton the first airport in Canada to have a drone delivery hub.
“EIA is proud to partner with industry leader DDC to establish Canada’s first airport drone delivery site and drastically modernize cargo logistics and supply chain solutions,” said Myron Keehn, EIA’s vice-president of air service and commercial development.
Drones in the mix at a major commercial airport will be the true test of how well they can share airspace in congested areas. Interest from many other Canadian airports followed the EIA announcement.
Currently, DDC is building just rotary wing drones. Of the three current models, two are electric and one is gas powered. The flight specifications for the current fleet are shown in the table.
They envision developing future rotary wing and fixed wing versions that will be able to carry larger payloads over longer distances. At some point, when the regulations are in place, they see movement of drones off single properties and to depots at other locations that are nearby or in the region.
In fact, a recent proof of concept trial aimed at medical services linked Moose Factory to Moosonee, in Northern Ontario near Hudson Bay. Moose Factory is on an island in the Moose River. The main medical services are in Moose Factory where the general hospital is located. A health services clinic is on the mainland in Moosonee. While the distance is just 4-5 km, traversing the river can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous, especially in the spring and the fall when the ice is not strong enough to drive over and too broken up to navigate a boat, so a drone to link the two locations is ideal. A trial was conducted to validate this strategy and proved worthwhile.
On December 3rd, DDC’s Moose Cree First Nation’s project received the first conditional approval for one of its funding applications, which, subject to entering into a definitive agreement and satisfying any conditions imposed by the funder, would enable Moose Cree First Nation’s Remote Communities Initiative to pay DDC for its drone delivery service scheduled for implementation in Q1, 2020.
Stan Kapashesit, Director of Economic Development for the Moose Cree First Nation also serves on DDC’s Advisory Board. One of the main objectives of this partnership is to help other remote Indigenous communities that are even more remote in utilizing this technology, as the plans are to make this community a hub and depot of the north.
“As an engineer, it’s a great opportunity to work on leading edge technology and also help build out a new industry. Our solution is truly innovative and world class. Given the situation with COVID-19, our solution can help save lives doing medical deliveries. It’s very satisfying to make a difference for social benefit,” said Erik Chau, Drone Delivery Canada Engineering Manager.
Transport Canada (TC) is working to safely integrate drones into Canada’s transport system. They are doing this through trials and test sites, and through partnerships with key Canadian and international organizations.
Transport Canada has launched, jointly with the National Research Council of Canada’s (NRC) Aerospace Research Centre, the Consortium for Aerospace Research (CARIC) and Innovation in Canada, and the Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Quebec (CRIAQ), a call for project ideas to further strengthen Canada’s foothold in the drone industry.
The goal of this program is to promote Canadian development of research and technology related to:
- Detect and Avoid (DAA) systems
- Command and Control (C2) link robustness
- Human injury probability
- Human injury severity
- Drone detection
Through collaborative research activities, the outcome of this program will help inform Transport Canada’s regulatory framework to promote safe and economically viable drone use in Canada.
Transport Canada plans to issue a Call for Comments due to close on June 21, 2020, requesting industry feedback from interested parties including business leaders, manufacturers, operators, and the general public to provide input into some significant changes to the legislation that governs drones in Canada. They are considering allowing drones to fly higher than the 400-foot ceiling limit, which will permit them to mix with the manned aviation aircraft. They are also considering increasing the weight limits upwards, so bigger commercial drones can fly with heavier payloads. Transport Canada is looking at the existing drone licencing requirements too. They are pondering a third category of licence for the higher, heavier drones that is closer to criteria to earn a private pilot licence. As well as for flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), which would mean leveraging advanced technologies like pilot worn virtual / augmented reality googles and artificial intelligence capabilities to fly these large-scale drones. Finally, while they call it ‘Remote ID’, my interpretation is that Transport Canada is evaluating a form of transponder for these special category drones.
Canada is a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization. As a participant, TC can learn from other countries’ experience regulating drones. Standards developed at ICAO help improve the safety of aircraft in Canada. Since 2015, TC and the FAA in the United States have collaborated in the area of drones under the Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC). RCC participation has helped Canada and the United States harmonize regulations and promote business.
The regulator has a lot of hard work to do to make commercial drones a cohesive part of controlled airspace fabric. It can be achieved, and it will be done. Drones are expected to become an important part of the Canadian aviation system at some point in the future. However, it is a slow journey to make it all safe and without conflict for all stakeholders, including general aviation and more importantly, the public.
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.