When Ken Kultgen looks up in the air, it's not birds or planes that he sees, but the future.
And it comes in the shape of a drone.
"Lots of communities envy where we are at," said Kultgen, the longtime mayor of Foremost, a village of about 500 people located 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary near the U.S. border. His boast speaks volumes for a community that's hardly distinctive in the area, let alone on the prairie.
There's a drone testing range in Quebec, but Foremost is home to Canada's only testing range to fly drones beyond line of sight, which allows an unmanned aircraft to travel a few dozen kilometres, instead of just one or two. Companies using the facility include Ontario-based Drone Delivery Canada, which has signed deals with Staples and NAPA Auto Parts, which are both interested in using new technology to expand their ability to ship products to customers or from one depot to another.
While major Canadian cities grapple with the popularity of recreational drones and the push by companies to fly commercially, a place like Foremost offers something different. Drones can be tested in a massive area on the wide-open prairie, far away from buildings and people.
Foremost is an ideal testing area for flying drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles since the area has such a small population, few trees and receives barely any rain.
While the test range is now up and running, it didn't happen overnight. The idea for a drone testing facility came a decade ago and it's taken a long time to work with governments and regulators to launch the project. Transport Canada only granted the certification to fly beyond line of sight in November.
The stakes are high for the small village, since it could bring much-needed jobs and create a special opportunity that is rarely available in farming communities.
"Right now the options are get into agriculture or get into oil and gas or chemical business," said Kultgen. "With this, it means the young people out of Foremost can go out and get their education in a technical field ... and come back and be working in the community that they grew up in."
Several different industries are embracing drones to do things like inspect oil and gas pipelines, count wildlife, or analyze the health of vegetation. All of those tasks and services are offered by Ventus Geospatial, a Calgary-based company which is now testing its drones in Foremost.
"Before, Transport Canada wanted data from our company to show our equipment could go beyond the line of sight. But it was kind of a catch-22 because there was nowhere we could go legally and fly beyond line of sight to get them the data," said Stephen Myshak, chief executive of the company.
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Myshak is hopeful Transport Canada will open up more airspace for his company after seeing the testing results from Foremost.
"Instead of doing a few kilometres for a pipeline inspection, we can do tens or hundreds of kilometres at a time. So it really just makes us more efficient, gives us new opportunities with larger jobs, longer linear projects like pipelines, power lines, and so on," said Myshak.
So far, companies from within Canada have used the Foremost range, although there is interest from abroad.
"We've had conversations with companies from the U.S. and other places, Europe too. We haven't had them come yet, but it's only a matter of time," said Doug Hanna, who manages the village-owned facility.
'We're just getting going now'
The project is the brainchild of Sterling Cripps, a former member of the military who now operates his own drone training company, Canadian Unmanned Inc.
"I'm delighted. It's very gratifying to see a project mature and come into itself. And we're not there yet. We're just getting going now," said Cripps.
Around the world there's only about three or four sites of equivalent size, scale and accessibility, said Cripps — and some of that testing is done over salt water, which isn't ideal because it's difficult to retrieve a drone if it goes down.
That's why he describes the facility in Foremost, a town with one bank, one hotel and one grocery store, as "very unique" and a "diamond in the rough."
Since the idea for the range was conceived, there's been an explosive growth of drone technology and mainstream sales.
"It's the future, it's coming. We can't avoid it," said Cripps.
Room for growth?
The community hopes to grow the facility, located at the local airport.
Currently, the site shuts down in June and July to not interfere with crop spaying in the region. There's also a need for new equipment, locals say, some of which would allow drones and other aircraft to communicate with each other to avoid any conflict.
Government funding helped launch the facility and there is a proposal to the federal government for additional support.
The mayor of Foremost is devoting many hours to the project, knowing how important it could be to his community. One company is already considering setting up a workspace in the community where the final assembly of drones would be completed and then the devices tested, before being packaged in a crate and shipped elsewhere in the world. That could create a dozen new jobs.
"Thirty people makes quite a bit of difference," he said, "if they have families, to keeping the school open, the grocery store open, all the service businesses that we have in town."