Recent testing has shown drones can immediately impact deliveries to remote locations
Drone product delivery hardware and software have the potential to change logistics practices forever. Eventually, it may reduce, if not eliminate the need for people, paper and carbon-based power when shipping goods to customers.
More importantly, Canada appears to be leading the parade. Last summer, Canada Post, London Drugs together with InDro Robotics successfully completed Canada’s first-ever Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) flight carrying pharmaceuticals via drone from a London Drugs pharmacy to remote Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Canada Post was selected along with InDro Robotics in 2018 to participate in Transport Canada’s BVLOS Drone Trials. The proposal focused on testing BVLOS capabilities over open water and partnering to test the delivery of prescription medications to remote areas.
There were three parts to the August 19 trials including delivery of an Epi pen (Epinephrine) and Narcan, leaving London Drugs’ mobile facility in Duncan, B.C. to the local Country Grocer on Salt Spring Island as well as direct, pin-pointed delivery to a patient’s home on Salt Spring Island.
“The ability to provide medications to patients in remote areas that would otherwise have to travel hours to obtain pharmacy service is significant in so many ways. In the very near future we will be able to provide delivery of prescription medications to an abundance of areas not accessible by vehicle,” said Chris Chiew, general manager of Pharmacy, London Drugs.
The operational data obtained from the trials will be used by Transport Canada to inform BVLOS regulations moving forward in Canada. As part of the ongoing testing, Canada Post is simulating deliveries over bodies of water, icy roads and challenging terrain to temporary camps and other remote locations.
“The delivery of prescription medications by drone to rural areas will be of great advantage to communities across the country including northern Canada and as well to hospitals in remote communities where drones can land on hospital Heli pads,” said Philip Reece, CEO, InDro Robotics.
The test flight was four years in the making. Among other things, it also involved three years of trials by InDro, which designed and built the drone, including one that took place in rural Ontario involving the OPP, RCMP, Renfrew County Paramedics and Transport Canada.
“The drone carrying the EpiPen flew at 50-60 km/h at about 75 metres above the ground,” explained Reece. “It can carry a maximum of 5.5 kilograms. The current payload limit is 20-25 kilos.” That’s comparable to the weight of a medium-sized concrete block.
Reece adds, “In the future, drones will create and send a bar code to the receiver which can be printed to identify exactly where the load will be delivered. As well, to prevent theft and mis-use, containers will be sealed with a lock to which only the recipient has been given the code to open it.”
In addition, for UAV operators, he expects future technology will enable drones to move on to a second site to the drop off other packages or pick up return shipments. Such multiple delivery and back-haul opportunities reduce fuel use and other operating costs while earning additional revenue. Since drones are essentially flying robots, there are no pilots keeping keep track of their hours and punching time clocks.
London Drugs, Canada Post and InDro Robotics successfully tested drone delivery of emergency medicaitons on Vancouver Island. (InDro Robotics/London Drugs)
As well, deliveries are also paperless since shippers, carriers, forwarders, regulators and receivers can receive and share data, not to mention pay digitally. By eliminating empty return trips drones focus last-mile delivery priorities on customer service, asset productivity and revenue generation by reducing, if not eliminating labour and fuel expenses, equipment wear and tear and maintenance costs.
In addition, drones are also environmentally friendly. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries which are recharged by solar- or wind-powered electrical sources. By avoiding the use fossil fuels, drones do not add to greenhouse gas emission.
Medical products and related instruments are ideal first users of urban, last-mile drone product deliveries. Reece predicts hospitals and other health facilities becoming early adopters. Currently Canada has a total of 367 heliports. Many of them are linked to hospitals ranging from Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children to the Vermilion Health Centre in Vermilion, Alberta (pop. 4,084). Reece also sees the growth of emergency deliveries of life-saving products expanding beyond prescription drugs, and blood to include medical instruments and prosthetics.
Such cargo is typically compact, lightweight and critical, meaning timely and prompt delivery can save lives. Reece also anticipates drones delivering urgent supplies to city-centre hospitals located on traffic-clogged, densely populated streets. As well, drones are ideal for providing emergency deliveries to highway accident sites where dense rush-hour traffic can hold up deliveries of blood, emergency drugs and medical instruments to police, rescue teams and ambulance staff to attend to accident victims well before helicopters arrive to take them to hospitals.
In today’s increasingly crowded urban air space, all airborne vehicles must know at all times the precise location of nearby flying objects—helicopters, small planes and other drones. To do so, drones are quickly adopting the latest technology such as portable ADS-B (Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) to replace existing GPS systems. Reece explains that after ADS-B determines the drone’s position from their links to orbiting satellites, it can quickly share it with other aircraft so they all can make better, more timely decisions to stay out of each other’s flight paths.
Drones’ ability to offer additional outbound deliveries and back-haul opportunities will make supply chains more productive and profitable. The days of one-way deliveries and drivers or pilots sitting around waiting or returning home empty may be over.
More crucial will be drone deliveries to major urban centres. Ensuring air traffic safety over metropolitan areas will facilitate the introduction of drones in using roof tops of hospitals, office buildings, apartments, parking lots, sports stadiums for picking up and dropping off cargo.
For that reason, Transport Canada has been actively monitoring the safety and security of drone deliveries. It agreed to use Salt Spring Island as test case.
Since major urban centres pose more safety and security challenges such as crowded skies, tall structures, dense populations, air pollution etc. regulatory approval of such drone deliveries will likely take longer than landing sites in less crowded, wilderness destinations. Potential back-country users include construction, mining, forestry, oil and gas exploration and wildlife management sites.
Drones will facilitate year-round deliveries to such destinations since they lack accessible, land-based year-round links such as roads, railroads or airfields. Currently such deliveries can be awkward, dangerous and expensive since they usually involve light planes, helicopters and even lighter-than-air dirigibles which require pilots and burn fossil fuels.
As a result, several Indigenous groups are moving quickly to take full advantage of their isolated properties as potential drone delivery sites. Recently, Drone Delivery Canada signed a $2.5 million contract to deliver parcels within the Moose Cree First Nation communities in Northern Ontario.
DDC says the project is also the first stage in the “remote communities” market segment DDC aims to grow over the next few years. The company aims to utilize its Sparrow drones, capable of carrying a 5-kg payload, for the transport of goods including letters, general parcels, and medical supplies.
The site represents a prime candidate for regulatory drone flight approval since it is a tiny, out-of-the-way, obstruction-free wilderness location. As well, year-round drone links will help boost local economic development and trade for an isolated Indigenous community, according to Jonathon Araujo, an Odawa from the Manitoulin Island-based Wikwemikong First Nation and Toronto-based co-founder of the Pontiac Group, a First Nations consulting firm focused on boosting First Nations’ socio-economic development.
“Overland roads are fine in winter when temperatures drop to minus 40º C. so people can use dog sleds to cross the water. But it is virtually inaccessible the rest of the year—the ground is too soft for trucks and cars.” As a result, shipping goods by helicopter cost between $7 to $10 per pound. When barges or trucks can be used, transportation costs which remain high are passed on to customers.
While many observers focus on the business and commercial benefits of drone deliveries, Araujo also stresses the cultural and social benefits of such reliable, year-round supply chain links. He says, “Some of our older residents have been creating hand-made Cree Twig Ducks by bundling tamarack tree branches together to resemble Canada geese.
“We want to preserve this traditional art form. Using drones to ship them south will boost the local economy by creating more jobs for local craftsmen. In the past, we all feared the craft would die out since tourists had to come up here in the summer to see them before buying them. But if we can ship them down to Toronto year-round, it will help spread the word, boost sales and encourage people up here to learn the craft and keep the tradition alive.”
Since the decoys are relatively light but slightly bulky, they are ideal candidates for back-haul drone cargo.
In the emerging world of drone deliveries, many of Canada’s First Nations locations become an opportunity rather a challenge.