‘Sky’s the limit’: Drone delivery operation buzzing at Edmonton International Airport

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Edmonton’s airport is becoming a launch pad for autonomous drone deliveries, despite the fact that the flying machines are generally banned around Canadian airports.

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On Friday, Edmonton International Airport (EIA) displayed a trial flight of a sparrow drone operated by Toronto-based Drone Delivery Canada, which will be used to shuttle cargo over the Queen Elizabeth II Highway to a nearby delivery site in the neighbouring hamlet of Nisku, roughly two kilometres away (as the drone flies).

When the program is up and running, it will carry packages for clients of companies such as Ziing Final Mile and Apple Express.

Myron Keehn, EIA’s vice-president of air service and business development, said the airport is embracing drone operations in a bid to improve and secure supply chains, especially since recent and devastating floods seen in British Columbia disrupted travel on major routes in the province.

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“The world has seen how vulnerable supply chains can be,” Keehn said. “We must find new ways to modernize and protect supply chains, improve logistics, and ensure that critical supplies get where they need to go.”

The launch coincided with Drone Safety Day , recognized by Transport Canada to promote safe operation of the machines and celebrate success stories surrounding them.

The airspace around Canadian airports is highly restricted for safety and drone activity is forbidden without proper authorization, said EIA. Transport Canada said that operators are otherwise prohibited from flying drones within 5.6 km of an airport unless they are following procedures established by the agency.

However, this drone delivery operation was approved by Nav Canada, the private non-profit company responsible for air traffic control in the country, Keehn said.

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Steve Bogie, vice-president of flight operations and technology for Drone Delivery Canada, said the company has been conducting trial flights before Friday’s launch, and is in the final phase of validating the travel routes before it plans to oversee regular deliveries running Monday through Friday.

The sparrow drone on exhibit weighs about 10 pounds, he added, with batteries accounting for about half of that, and can travel for about 45 minutes, or 20 to 25 kilometres, along a pre-programmed route without the need for a pilot (though safety pilots are on hand to take control if needed).

With more time and with experience, the program may evolve to deliver packages to a large urban centre like Edmonton, Bogie added. Before that, he sees opportunities in using it to reach remote communities that are hard to access and in urgent need of goods such as medical supplies.

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“You will have central hubs, such as Edmonton, and then you’ll have spokes, which will be the smaller communities that will be served by it,” he said.

Keehn said the airport first considered integrating drones into its operations about six years ago and is no stranger to using the machines, having already adopted them to control wildlife in the area and inspect runways.

Testing for the delivery program, which will run for about one year, began a safe distance away at the Leduc landfill, Keehn said, before gradually moving to the airport.

As for its future, he wasn’t about to set a ceiling.

“The sky’s the limit,” Keehn said. “Literally.”

hissawi@postmedia.com

@hamdiissawi

A new drone delivery service is demonstrated at the Edmonton International Airport in Edmonton on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. This is Canada’s first drone delivery operation from within an airport. David Bloom/Postmedia
A new drone delivery service is demonstrated at the Edmonton International Airport in Edmonton on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. This is Canada’s first drone delivery operation from within an airport. David Bloom/Postmedia

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