Day 6

A remote First Nation is going to use drone delivery to cut the cost of groceries

Groceries in remote Moose Cree First Nation cost 45 per cent more than they do in comparable communities to the south. So it's launching a drone delivery service for groceries.
Drone Delivery Canada and the Moose Cree First Nation are experimenting with drone delivery in the hopes that they can lower the cost of importing goods. (Drone Delivery Canada)

As Google partners with businesses to deliver burritos on drones in Australia, a Canadian experiment in airborne delivery is about to take off — with a very different goal.

The Australian drone experiment aims to further the commercial potential of drone delivery. The Canadian experiment aims to lower the cost of basic goods in remote Northern communities.

"It's not really about trying to move a pizza to your front door two minutes faster; it's really about 'let's help people live better lives,'" says Tony Di Benedetto, CEO of Drone Delivery Canada.    

To do that, his company partnered with the Moose Cree First Nation, a remote community located on the island of Moose Factory at the southern tip of James Bay.


High food prices in the North

During warmer months, goods and supplies have to be brought in by helicopter. That doesn't come cheap.

The community of Moose Factory from the air. (John M. Rickard)
Groceries must travel far to get to the First Nation. In the winter, people can travel between the island of Moose Factory and the community of Moosonee via an ice road. When the road melts, boats and aircraft are the only options for transportation.

As a result, groceries cost roughly 45 per cent more in Moose Cree First Nation than in communities to the south like Timmins, Ont., according to Stan Kapashesit, the director of economic development for the First Nation.

"A loaf of bread would probably cost me about six dollars. And the pricing compared from us to even as close as Cochrane and Timmins, we're almost paying double," Kapashesit says.

Moose River freezes over in the winter. (MNR)


Drones must be tested before scaling up

The community plans to use drones to bring in food, mail and medical supplies from nearby Moosonee. Eventually, the hope is to turn Moose Cree into a "drone hub" that could service communities even further north.

Kapashesit says it would take 5-10 minutes for a drone to fly from Moosonee to Moose Factory.

Helicopters, which are now used to fly goods across the river, cost $1,600 to $1,800 per hour to rent, Kapashesit says.

"We're hoping that [drones will cost] a fraction of that."


Drones will carry payloads of 4.5 kilograms in upcoming test flights, but Kapashesit says there are drones capable of carrying 50 times as much weight. Those drones could be used by the community once a delivery system is in place.

The testing process will also help optimize the drones' cold-weather performance. Kapashesit says temperatures of -30 C are common in his community.

Kapashesit says the drones should stop upon detecting objects in their flight paths, which would prevent them from crashing into airborne wildlife like geese.

Geese in the snow at Sandbank Lake Camp, Ont. (Stan Kapashesit)


Expanding to other First Nations Communities

The drones may also lead to more jobs for the community, since infrastructure for the network will need to be built, Kapashesit says.

Drone Delivery Canada will begin flying goods between Moosonee and Moose Factory. (Drone Delivery Canada)
"Utilizing technology like this is something Moose Cree is proud to be a part of. We're always looking at new ideas to move forward. Given our situation and given our location we want to be involved and we want to be there leading it. But in the end, we want to help our other First Nation communities that are even more remote than us," Kapashesit says.

"In the not-too-far future, we're hoping that we can have drone deliveries from here [Moose Factory] to those communities north of us like Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat."

Kapashesit adds that drones could be used to deliver supplies in emergency situations too.

To hear the full interview with Stan Kapashesit, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.