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Is grocery drone delivery in Canada ready to take off?

Drone Delivery Canada clears major hurdle and will start commercial trial runs later this year

While Canada’s grocery industry is still figuring out the best home delivery options, airborne delivery drones could soon be coming over the horizon.

Drone Delivery Canada cleared a key regulatory hurdle last month when it received a Compliant UAV Operator Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), which means the company is one step closer to being able to fly its delivery drones beyond the line of site—a key safety concern. The company described the certificate as the “starting point for the commercialization of drone delivery services in Canada.”

DDC has already been running trials around Moosonee Ont. and the nearby island community of Moose Factory. With the SFOC it will begin a commercial trial in the region later this year, effectively recreating what commercialized services would look like, said CEO Tony Di Benedetto. The trial should last for about three months, with drones making regular trips delivering food, medical supplies, mail and other packages to Moose Factory.

If the trial goes well, and Transport Canada approves, DDC hopes to begin commercial operations in 2019, said Di Benedetto.

Doorstep delivery in urban setting is the long-term goal, but that could still be five years away, he said. In the short term the company is focused on servicing more remote communities with less infrastructure. “Our goal is to build a railway in the sky,” he said.

While the prospect of Amazon and other retailers, landing flying drones at customers' front doors and delivering packages (and groceries) has long been possible, progress toward that reality was slowed by red tape and safety concerns in the U.S., which was viewed as being particularly cautious.

But now the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is being pushed by Washington to speed up the process and get commercial drones into the air sooner rather than later, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

At least 10 pilot programs have been approved by the FAA and could start by May. And at a conference on unmanned aerial vehicles earlier this month, FAA officials repeatedly told startups and other industry players that “the FAA is open for business,” reported the WSJ.

Amazon created Prime Air to develop drones that could deliver packages up to 2.2 kg to customer homes, and has run trials in other markets. With the new attitude at the FAA, the company has also been pushing for safety approval for its drone designs and wants to know what the operating rules will be, according to the WSJ.

READ: Amazon wants to build drone repair stations on trains, container ships

Gur Kimchi, vice-president of Prime Air, did not provide any comment to the paper on the details of its program, but said he hoped to have necessary approvals by next year.

Drone Delivery Canada’s drones can carry up to 4.5 kg, though it's working on a 11-kg capacity model and ultimately hopes to have drones that can carry up to 917 kg covering 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres. (It’s about 850 kilometres between Toronto and Moosonee.)

“It is happening a lot faster than most people think,” he said. “I think Canada is much more advanced than the U.S. when it comes to this kind of technology.”


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