Closed dump, drones help Calgary bolster tech 'hotbed' reputation

So-called Falcon and other unmanned aerial vehicles are taking flight as part of what the city's calling a living lab, a space for companies and post-secondary institutions to test out new technologies.

Companies welcome to test their ideas for free over southern Alberta landfill

The closed landfill is sparking lots of ideas in the minds of Calgary's drone experts. (Helen Pike/CBC)

A drone dressed as a falcon circles trash at Calgary's Shepard Landfill. 

Most drones use helicopter blades to fly but this one flaps wings like a bird would, and even more rapidly.

The drone belongs to AERIUM Analytics, one of the Calgary-based companies now able to test flights within city limits.

The so-called Falcon and other unmanned aerial vehicles are taking flight as part of what the city's calling a living lab, a space for companies and post-secondary institutions to test out new technologies. 

"The city is gracious enough to actually give us a spot where we can do our testing and practice our pilot training that's a lot closer to our office than having to leave the city," operation VP Jordan Cicoria said. "It really is beneficial to be working with the city to help grow and promote what we do."

This drone is designed to look like a falcon. (CBC)

Flights launched in March on Mondays when the landfill isn't open to the public, said Andrew Sedor, the city's transportation department business development coordinator.

Calgary has quietly been a leader in autonomy systems, Sedor said. Oil and gas companies have created unique sensors and systems that are now applicable in the drone industry, he said, and the city's helping facilitate the tech niche. 

When the city asked what companies needed to flourish, they asked for better access to city assets, such as roads, parking lots, fleet vehicles and land.

Hollywood help

There was some back and forth with the city's legal department about how to feasibly allow companies that access.

They zeroed in on the Shepard Landfill, with some help from a precedent set by the film, Exit Wounds, Sedor said.

"We showed a photo of the Steven Segal movie where they blew a car up on Centre Street Bridge and said… we should be able to put some sensors down," he said. "Council bought it and approved it."

Some of the companies testing on site include NASA, Aerial Analytics and Lockheed Martin. SAIT and University of Calgary are using the free airspace.

But it's not a space for hobbyists to practice.

'Hotbed of activity'

To join the living lab, companies must have a special flight operations certificate from Transport Canada and have insurance to cover liabilities.

Lockheed Martin's business development manager says he thinks a large part of the country's current unmanned systems companies are headquartered in Alberta.

"This has been a hotbed of activity for the past 15 years that a lot of people don't know about," John Molberg said.

"The growth in unmanned systems is the next big thing. We're talking about autonomous unmanned vehicles on the ground or... in the sky."

He believes companies will look to Calgary as a jurisdiction to allow their testing and operations.

John Molberg is Lockheed Martin's business development manager. (CBC)

Lockheed has launched a project with SAIT, which he said is a good example of how Calgary is signalling it's open for unmanned testing. The project evaluates technology to help drones see and respond to surroundings. 

The project, which uses the landfill, has drones create a three-dimensional map of the area, a technology that may have other applications once fully tested.

The falcon drone is one of the ones being tested over the landfill. (CBC)

SAIT has used drones for four years, and has the city for space to teach and do tests, school research director Rick Tofani said.

Now with the space to fly, he said students are able to work with small companies to troubleshoot drones and test new technologies.

"As more and more companies spring up in Alberta, they'll be looking for train people, and they'll be looking for people to solve some of the issues they have with new technology," he said. "Hopefully that'll be us."

Drone 'hub'

The living lab is designed to be revenue neutral. Although the city's not charging for airspace, Calgary Economic Development is tracking any money the industry may bring into the economy.

So far, they're seeing a number of benefits, the development corporation's Robyn Bews said.

Robyn Bews of Calgary Economic Development says she believes Calgary could be declared Canada's drone hub. (CBC)

She believes Calgary is getting attention for being one of the first municipalities to offer airspace. She said it helps local companies grow and attract new talent.

"This differentiates Calgary on a global stage in an explosively growing sector, and it means that our team can go out to the world tell this story and create economic benefits and jobs," Bews said.

"I think it's safe to say that we could declare ourselves as an unmanned systems hub in Canada now."

The post-secondary institutions in Calgary are getting involved with the drone tests. (CBC)

Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating said the city has a lot to get from offering up a closed landfill to commercial users.

"I don't think you gain revenue," Keating said. "But what you do gain is the reputation of the city allowing these things to happen.

"And the fact that if this test site is there, and it's readily available for companies, you may see a startup company coming here."


Helen Pike


Helen Pike joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.