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The sky's the limit: The world leader in drone delivery is Canadian

With the holiday season and consumer frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday days away, ‘tis the season of shipping product as fast as possible.

News in October that the Federal Aviation Administration had granted UPS air carrier status, effectively also granted it status as the first national drone airline. Meanwhile Amazon's Prime Air drone program promises delivery in 30 minutes or less in its latest for holiday shoppers.

Though straight-to-home drone delivery to replace terrestrial postal fleets, and deliver any product from across the globe is inching closer to a reality, there are legitimate obstacles holding back that retailer’s fancy. Meanwhile the commercial and industrial drone delivery industry is already capable of much more.

And Toronto-based Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) is already ahead of other players. It has had compliant air carrier status with Transport Canada since 2017 and isn't just focused on drones, but a more complex delivery system using unmanned autonomous vehicles. (UAVs)

It recently announced an agreement for Air Canada Cargo to act as its sales and marketing agent, which in turn led to a deal to deliver goods within the Edmonton International Airport from its drone delivery hub. And it’s operating as a pioneer in the development of the technology as Transport Canada is using data from its flights along with DDC policies to help build the entire drone delivery industry in Canada.

Why drones? 

For those that think drones have been reserved for radio-control hobbyists and professional photographers, there are advantages drones have over traditional delivery services and mail carriers.

One of them is as a last mile solution. Plenty of isolated communities in Canada have terrain that is too treacherous for traditional ground vehicles to access. It's in that last mile that Drone Delivery Canada first made a name for itself after its founding six years ago - delivering vital life sustaining supplies and food to remote communities.

“The company started by focusing on First Nations and Inuit communities in Canada because there was a social need, an economic need and it was something the government was, and still is, interested in. There are thousands of these communities in Canada that have difficult access to food and health care, so it seemed like a natural fit,” says DDC CEO Michael Zahra.

Its portfolio has since expanded beyond difficult terrain to situations where time is of the essence, such as a recent pilot project in Caledon, Ontario that brought drones carrying defibrillators to emergencies faster than an ambulance arrive. It also can deliver predictability for e-commerce where time is money, having recently signed a contract with the Canadian arm of DSV Panalpina – a global transport and logistics company – to deliver goods on planned routes within its warehouse complex in Milton, Ontario as a depot-to-depot solution

“A drone offers consistency. If it's supposed to be there in 10 minutes, it'll get there in ten minutes, whereas a car, depending on traffic, could be there in five minutes one day and then an hour the next day. Then, for courier companies, drones provide opportunities for new premium services that will get a package to you in one hour instead of one or two days,” says Zahra.

It's exactly the type of service Amazon plans with Prime Air, but there are barriers before drone delivery is available on a wide scale.

Barriers to entry

Before drones can reach the mainstream ubiquity of a Canada Post van or UPS Truck, the world must safely integrate all drones and drone air traffic management systems into one set of rules for everyone – something Transport Canada is investigating.

“We're working right now on advancing a drone traffic management solution to ensure safe integration of drones into Canada's air transportation system, which includes co-chairing a working group with NAV Canada to discuss challenges and strategies in accommodating a space like drone delivery,” says Félix Meunier, Director of Transport Canada's Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) Task Force. 

“I would also say that through international engagement, we're monitoring the development of technology-based solutions like how remote identification of drones can assist traffic management as a means to identify drones and air traffic management systems. We'd like to see a global solution to ensure we all have the same set of rules like we have with traditional aviation right now.”

Another barrier to drones going mainstream is safety concerns over their ability to fly in densely populated areas without hitting anything on the ground or in the air.

“The ability to sense and avoid other aircraft, people vehicles, structures must be tested to ensure an equivalent level of safety as traditional aircraft, especially in areas where there's more airspace use and higher population density,” says Meunier.

Drones operated by Drone Delivery Canada can already detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft. At its 16,000 square foot command facility in Vaughan, Ontario they monitor the province's airspace in real-time on a big screen setup similar to mission control at NASA; and are able to collect their own air traffic, weather and navigation data using radar and aircraft transponders. This data feeds into proprietary software, which automates the flight of all drones from take-off to landing. If a drone needs to avoid another plane or obstacle, it will notify the human flight operator at the command centre to initiate avoidance manoeuvres and the flight operator can tell it to increase altitude or land in a predesignated safe zone.

DDC's ability to detect and avoid obstacles is accurate enough that it was one of four companies, including Canada Post, selected by Transport Canada to participate in Beyond Visual Line of Sight trials in 2018. 

“Beyond Visual Line of Sight are flights where the operator cannot directly see the drone and instead uses technology to safely navigate the drone to its destination and back,” says Meunier.

During its trial, DDC successfully delivered food and medical supplies to indigenous populations in Moosonee, Ontario. Following that, in July 2019 Transport Canada began approving Beyond Visual Line of Sight deliveries where the risks to people and property are low.

It's now easier to get drone delivery flights approved by Transport Canada. In January 2019, the regulator unveiled new regulations that standardized the rules for safe drone flight whether basic or advanced and within visual line of sight or beyond.

Prior to these new regulations, companies like DDC needed to ask permission to conduct every drone flight, but now as long as they fly in accordance with the regulations (obtaining a pilot certificate for advanced operations such as flying in controlled airspace, piloting drones weighing between 250 g and 25 kg, registering your drone with Transport Canada, etc.) it can fly without contacting the regulator each time.

“From when the industry began until today, Transport Canada has removed a lot of the administrative burden on the operator in that they've formalized many of the conditions necessary to pilot drones safely,” says Mark Wuennenberg, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Drone Delivery Canada.

One of the many conditions when it comes to piloting drones is they cannot be flown within 5.6 km of anywhere a traditional aircraft would take off and land, but Drone Delivery Canada is the first to have a hub from which drones can take off and land at a Canadian airport. It was also the first to do a beyond visual line of sight test in the U.S. at the Griffiss International Airport in New York.

Flying near an airport is just one of many firsts that they've been able to accomplish. While FedEx announced that it had completed the first e-commerce delivery by drone in the U.S. in 2019, it was actually DDC that had the first e-commerce delivery in Canada three years ago for Staples. And it’s  able to fly further with more weight than Transport Canada typically allows, getting a Special Flight Operations Certificate in 2018 to carry payloads of 25 lb. up to 60 km.

A crawl, walk, run approach

“We are more than a drone,” says DDC CEO Michael Zahra. “I'm not sure we have any competitors, but some our competitors are really focused on the drone. We have a complete ecosystem with a logistics and infrastructure solution, so it's the drone, it's the depots the drones fly between, it's a radar system, it's the FLYTE software that manages the whole thing autonomously, it's air traffic control, it's weather monitoring and all these sorts of things that we sell.”

DDC tracks everything that goes in and out of its drones, where its drones are going both on the computer and in hard copy, so when the regulator comes by to audit it provides data on everything from where it flew to what the weather was like.

“From a regulator point-of-view, it's all about credibility and professionalism,” says Wuennenberg. “When you provide them with a risk assessment of a certain operation you want to do, they feel comfortable with the processes within the company to ensure that operation will be safe.”

As the regulator grants more access and DDC build on its technology, it also hopes to pave the way for the industry to reach its 2.0 version.

“Today our smallest drone is The Sparrow, which can carry a payload of 4.5 kg at a 30 km range and our largest drone is The Condor. It's gasoline-powered and looks like a small helicopter and that can carry 400 lb. about 200 km at 120 km/h. We will have drones in our portfolio that take thousands of pounds thousands of kilometres, but it's a crawl, walk, run approach as we evolve the technology and more efficient batteries and engines become available,” says Zahra.

The industry is still developing hand in hand with regulation. In the past few months, DDC expects to sign new clients and get approval to fly even further with greater payloads. So while FedEx and UPS make announcements stateside, DDC is already ahead with big plans for the future.

“It's not being arrogant to say that by far we are the leader globally. We've been a major contributing factor to what data is out there and what technology can and can't do and what companies need to do this in a safe and secure way,” says Zahra.

“I'm sure in our lifetime we will see drones that will go not just thousands of kilometres with thousands of pounds of payload, but you'll see things moving between countries and over time, an unmanned aircraft system. In our lifetime, I'm pretty sure we will see unmanned traffic between continents. It will take a level of comfort, but it will come where you will get on a plane and there won't be a pilot. Meanwhile, there will be unmanned taxis flying from one building to another – that's guaranteed. There's a sequence of events that will happen and we must take a crawl, walk, run approach to get there.”

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