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A global leader in drone innovation

Myron Keehn, Vice President, Air Service and Business Development discusses how Edmonton International Airport is modernising cargo delivery and airport operations through leading drone innovations.

On a mild winter morning on 3 December 2021, with temperatures just below freezing and clear skies, a drone operated by Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) lifted off from the Airport City Sustainability Campus drone port at Edmonton International Airport (EIA) with a package of machine parts bound for the landing site located in an international business park across the busiest highway in Alberta. What made this flight truly unique was not only that this drone was being controlled by remote pilots thousands of kilometres away in central Canada, but also where it was flying.

It marked the first time in Canada that a drone delivery operation was able to take place within controlled airspace at an airport. Drone activity in these areas is not permitted without proper authorisation from Transport Canada and NAV Canada. As safety is our top priority at EIA, we worked closely with DDC and NAV Canada over several months to gain approval and enhance safety procedures to make this, and future flights, possible. These initial flights will create the template for future operations that could include deliveries into populated areas, such as Edmonton or other major centres, as well as Indigenous and Northern communities.   

This drone flight is not a one-time trial. In partnership with Drone Delivery Canada, Air Canada, Apple Express, and Ziing Final Mile, we have launched regular, daily scheduled drone delivery from EIA to various delivery sites in surrounding areas for commercial use. This is also significant in the decarbonisation of transportation and logistics, as we can use low-emission and zero-emission drones to reduce vehicle traffic and emissions. Furthermore, this also marks EIA as the first launch pad for autonomous drone deliveries, which is a critical step forward in the modernisation of supply chains. Recent events have reminded us of the importance of secure, resilient, and reliable supply chains. Drones will play a major role in logistics, especially in first and last mile delivery.

The importance of cargo drone delivery

We are creating a model that global airports can use for drone logistics and deliveries into more populated areas”

We believe cargo drone delivery will be an important component of EIA’s major cargo development and play a vital role in our cargo connectivity. We are creating a model that global airports can use for drone logistics and deliveries into more populated areas, like Edmonton or other major centres. EIA plays a vital role in global supply chains as a major hub for the movement of medical supplies, food, and e-commerce across North America and into remote communities and the Canadian North. EIA is committed to be at the forefront of modernising logistics by integrating innovations in drones and other emerging technologies in our cargo hub to strengthen global supply chains.

Where it all began

This wasn’t the first time our airport has made aviation history for using drones; the journey to get to this point began more than six years ago.

EIA is committed to be at the forefront of modernising logistics by integrating innovations in drones and other emerging technologies in our cargo hub to strengthen global supply chains”

We first began with a local company, AERIUM Analytics Inc., and its proprietary RoBird® done. RoBird® is a flapping wing drone that mimics a peregrine falcon. AERIUM and its RoBird® have become an integral part of our wildlife management programme, using this realistic falcon drone to deter bird activity at the airport. AERIUM was recently awarded a CA$1 million grant from Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) to further advance this innovative technology. AERIUM, in partnership with the University of Alberta – a global leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning – are working to create drone solutions and EIA is proud to participate and support the commercial development of this technology developed here in the Edmonton region.

Over the past several years, in addition to wildlife control, we have worked with AERIUM to use drones to conduct safety maintenance inspections of our runways, as well as the analysis of the precision approach lighting systems used by aircraft. We were the first Canadian airport, and AERIUM was the first drone services provider, to conduct a real-time analysis where the drone used highly specific tools to measure and collect data to help calibrate this lighting system.

Utilising for safety data and emergency management

We believe, beyond technology, the most important thing for EIA is a culture of innovation and embracing change”

At our general aviation airport, Villeneuve Airport, we work with Pegasus Imagery, a leading drone company that designs, manufactures, and operates long-range autonomous aircraft and sensors to deliver data solutions at scale for emergency management and public safety sectors. Pegasus was originally based at EIA, but has relocated to Villeneuve as they need more facility space for advancement manufacturing and R&D to support the company’s rapid growth and development.

In autumn 2019, we signed an agreement with Drone Delivery Canada to start developing and testing a permanent drone cargo delivery operation at EIA. With other partners including Air Canada Cargo who have operated as agents, we believe the future of drone delivery is here.

As we continue to prove the viability of this service, work with cargo companies and last kilometre delivery firms in addition to establishing safety protocols with Nav Canada, there will be more designated drone flight paths created. This will lead to real-time delivery of time-sensitive and high-value packages into major centres and across the greater Edmonton metropolitan region.

As an early adopter of drones, EIA wants to work with partners to pioneer new drone applications and develop innovative solutions to modernise supply chains and enhance airport performance and safety”

EIA’s Airport City Sustainability Campus, which focuses on economic development, job creation, and innovation creates an eco-system that spurs collaboration and fosters the commercialisation of emerging technologies and promotes the decarbonisation of transportation and logistics. EIA is home to multiple incubators such as the Alberta Aerospace and Technology Centre (AATC), Innovation Technology Start-ups (ITS), and Advanced Systems for Transportation Consortium and prior to COVID, attracted more than CA$1.5 billion in private investment.

We believe, beyond technology, the most important thing for EIA is a culture of innovation and embracing change. Drones will have an increasingly more important role in cargo delivery and airport operations. As an early adopter of drones, EIA wants to work with partners to pioneer new drone applications and develop innovative solutions to modernise supply chains and enhance airport performance and safety.

Biography

Myron Keehn has 30 years of experience working in the aviation’s private and public sectors in North and South America, Asia, and Europe, implementing new and effective approaches to airport business development. Keehn leads Edmonton International Airport City Sustainability Campus – an eco-system of companies driving innovation in e-commerce, cargo/logistics, advanced manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals.

Prior to Edmonton International Airport, Myron built a career focusing on how to drive economic potential of private and government-owned assets to maximise returns for countries by driving national investment and commercial plans.

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