An Indigenous community in northeastern Ontario is turning to drones to help lower costs and create jobs.
Moose Cree First Nation has teamed up with Toronto-based Drone Delivery Canada to see if the self-flying aircraft can reduce the time and expense of bringing food, medicine and other supplies to the remote community.
Moose Cree is located 2.5 kilometres from Moosonee, Ont., but is situated on an island with no easy link to the shore.
Goods are usually transported by barge in the summer and in trucks driving along ice roads in the winter, with pricey helicopters filling the gaps during the spring and fall when the waterway is partially frozen.
The community says it will start experimenting with using drones to transport key supplies.
It says the pilot project, which is expected to get underway next month, could not only reduce prices for food and other key supplies but create jobs in the area.
Stan Kapashesit, Moose Cree's Director of Economic Development, said the project could alleviate the present-day financial strain on community residents who pay exorbitant amounts for groceries and other basic necessities.
He said goods being transported by helicopter cost between $7 to $10 per pound. Although those costs fall when barges or trucks can be pressed into service, he said expenses remain high and inevitably get passed on to customers.
Neither he nor Drone Delivery Canada would speculate on how much money the program could save, but Kapashesit said the benefits could extend into the future.
He says the pilot project will create some temporary jobs in the community. If it's successful, however, the potential for economic growth is much greater.
"The plan is to include communities that are north of us," he said, citing the Indigenous communities of Kashetchewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat as examples. "The long-term vision would be to include drone delivery to those communities, and the hub would be Moose Cree."
Drone Delivery Canada CEO Tony Di Benedetto said the idea to use drones to access remote communities is beginning to gain traction around the world.
He said drones are already ferrying medical supplies to parts of Rwanda as well as taking other key supplies to communities in mountainous regions of Europe.
Canada's underserved northern communities, he said, seemed a natural fit for the delivery experiment.
"What we saw looking in this area was big, wide-open spaces with immediate lack of infrastructure," he said. "We saw that there was an immediate requirement where basic sustenance is a challenge for these communities."
Di Benedetto said the project will start modestly, with small 1.2-metre-by-1.2-metre drones that can carry up to 4.5 kilograms flying from Moosonee to Moose Cree. The whole flight should take no more than 10 minutes, he said, adding the test phase will involve mapping the best routes and determining the most sensible places to unload the aircraft.
If the project is successful, he said the company would bring in larger drones that can carry heavier loads and travel longer distances.
He said the company is waiting for regulatory approval to get the project underway.
Kapashesit said the community is keen on the experiment, adding he hopes it will engage a generation of residents.
"To see something new and innovative and using technology like this is exciting for them," he said. "We're hoping that the youth take to it and consider it as a potential employment opportunity or something to go for for the future."
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press