Sheshegwaning drone delivery project may herald new business

The Condor, a larger drone model that is gas-powered and can transport 400 pounds of cargo up to 200 kilometres per tank at 120 kilometres per hour. It is best suited for extremely remote locations such as fly-in reserves.

SHESHEGWANING – A possible partnership between Sheshegwaning and Pontiac Group could one day revolutionize the way Islanders receive goods and needed supplies by turning the Western Manitoulin First Nation into a logistics and distribution hub for Island-bound drone deliveries.

“This spawned out of the idea that we need to look after our people here in Sheshegwaning, in terms of being able to get the essentials they need and build food security. We figure with the capacity this affords us, we’ll be able to open a transportation path for the last-mile delivery of goods to possibly the entire Island,” said Sheshegwaning Ogimaa Dean Roy.

Ogimaa Roy contacted Pontiac Group, a partnership between two young Anishinaabe entrepreneurs that builds connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous companies. Managing partner Jonathon Araujo is a Wiikwemkoong citizen and he is joined by Jacob Taylor of Curve Lake First Nation.

“Sheshegwaning is a fairly remote location within Manitoulin Island. They wanted to have access to larger markets, especially when looking at their food sovereignty initiatives,” said Mr. Araujo. “Their goals are to use drones to access places like Sault Ste. Marie, other communities along Highway 17 and potentially even Sudbury and North Bay.”

Discussions between Pontiac Group and Sheshegwaning are still very much in an exploratory phase. They are gathering data, identifying potential problems in the community and determining the ones that might be aided by the use of drones in various capacities.

Commercial drone delivery services are all but unheard of in Canada at the present time. A partnership with a Milton logistics company became commercially operational on March 23 but few details were available as of press time Monday. No remote delivery services are presently licenced to operate, meaning this potential partnership could become one of the pioneering projects that ushers in a new age of getting critical supplies to underserved areas.

Before that, though, they need a green light from Transport Canada.

The partners have acted to better their chances of that happening. They have a partnership with Drone Delivery Canada Corp. (DDC), a company that spent six years to get their first drone model approved by Transport Canada. It has two larger models as well which are currently in the process of becoming Transport Canada-approved.

DDC last year signed a 10-year exclusive deal with Air Canada Cargo, allowing the latter to market and sell drone delivery services operated by DDC. With one already-approved drone model on the way and two more pending, Air Canada has put its backing behind this company’s offerings.

DDC is one of the few drone logistics solutions on the market, said Mr. Araujo. It provides a platform, software, completes the regulatory work to get access to the airspace and then sells that package to a business.

The only currently approved model in DDC’s arsenal is the Sparrow, a relatively small unit that can hold up to 10 pounds of cargo. The Pontiac Group partners said they were comfortable with a flight distance of 25 kilometres, which seems rather short for a community as relatively isolated as Sheshegwaning.

Enter Mississauga First Nation.

Again, the talks are exploratory, but Sheshegwaning and Mississauga are discussing the possibility of each community being start-and-end points for an initial route. As the crow files, Mississauga First Nation’s band office is about 25 kilometres from the tip of Cape Roberts.

The Sparrow has a top speed of 80 kilometres per hour and can be operated in winds as high as 30 kilometres per hour. The second, larger electric drone model DDC is working to get certified is its Robin XL, which can travel 60 kilometres with a cargo capacity of 25 pounds. 

Finally, it is also testing its Condor model which looks much more like a small windowless helicopter. That machine carries 20 cubic feet of cargo weighing 400 pounds up to 200 kilometres at a top speed of 120 kilometres per hour. Unlike the smaller models, it is powered with a gas engine.

“(DDC) is really leading the country right now with going through these regulatory processes, that’s why Air Canada partnered with them because they’ve been working for six years to develop a commercial platform and have had successful tests,” said Mr. Araujo.

Sheshegwaning is among 50 communities across Canada that has expressed interest in working with Pontiac Group for drone services. Beyond delivery, some are using the aerial vehicles to identify possible commercial fishing locations and monitor wildlife migration.

“The sky’s really the limit with this technology. It’s constantly improving, batteries are getting better and it’s always evolving,” said Mr. Taylor.

Drones are not likely to make a major appearance in urban areas for the foreseeable future. A long list of questions remains unasked about operating drones in heavily populated areas.

In the North, however, those limitations are not in place. The potential Sheshegwaning route is particularly attractive because there is naught but open water between the two communities.

“There’s never been any treaties signed on the sky and we believe First Nations have every right to use the sky and we want to participate in a meaningful way in the future,” said Mr. Taylor. “This is really an opportunity for First Nations to lead innovation through drone delivery and do it in a good way—we don’t want to have 20,000 drones in the sky all of a sudden and affecting wildlife such as birds.” 

On the subject of birds, Mr. Taylor said the DCC units were not likely to be targets of raptors such as eagles defending their territory, as has been seen in a growing number of online videos from recreational drone pilots. The Sparrow weighs 30 pounds, compared to the recreational drone weight of perhaps one to two pounds. He added that the units emit high-frequency noises to deter wildlife.

Due to the early stages of the project, neither Pontiac Group nor Ogimaa Roy were able to provide any estimates of when the service might begin operation. If and when it does, though, it could potentially offer considerable economic opportunities for the small community.

“There would be a vertical business for the last-mile delivery of goods that come along the transportation path. It opens up the possibility to run a courier business, for example,” said Ogimaa Roy.

The drones can operate 24 hours per day either autonomously or from a remote operations centre. The only on-the-ground staffing required are individuals to load and unload the cargo and change batteries as needed.

Mr. Araujo’s home community of Wiikwemkoong has also begun preliminary discussions with Pontiac Group about how drones might be useful to its people.

There is also the hope of manufacturing the drones in Canada; Mr. Taylor said he would like to see a shared warehouse operation between Manitoulin Island First Nation partners to help manufacture drones and expand the scope of Pontiac Group’s drone offerings beyond delivery and environmental monitoring purposes.

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story stated that there were no commercial drone delivery services available in Canada. A DDC-run drone operation became operational on March 23 at a logistics hub in Milton but details of what that service entails were not immediately available.