Drones help drive diversification of Alberta's economy

Mark Lowey
November 21, 2018

Calgary and Alberta have become national leaders in research, development and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) across myriad applications and organizations.

The City of Calgary and the Alberta government have provided supportive policy and infrastructure to advance the UAV industry in the province. Both levels of government see UAVs, or drones, as a strategy to help diversify an economy largely dependent on oil and gas and other natural resources.

“Alberta leads in terms of provincial leadership in this area,” says Mark Aruja, chair of Ottawa-based Unmanned Systems Canada, a not-for-profit association that advocates for the Canadian industry. “We see tangible results regularly from what the Government of Alberta is doing, and more recently from the City of Calgary.”

Canada’s UAV industry has grown exponentially to nearly 2,000 companies from fewer than 100 companies in 2008, Aruja says. Alberta is home to 30% of these firms and has the highest domestic sales (46%) by province, according to a 2017 survey by Unmanned Systems Canada. Nationwide revenues now total more than $1 billion per year, he says.

In June, Alberta’s NDP government passed its Growth and Diversification Act with a section encouraging innovation of unmanned aerial systems. The Foremost Unmanned Air Systems Range in southern Alberta is one of only two sites in Canada (the other is in Alma, Quebec) for testing drones in beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights. In September, the Alberta government invested $300,000 (the Western Diversification Program provided an additional $225,000), to purchase safety equipment required for those tests.

“The Government of Alberta views the unmanned aerial systems sector as a strategic niche component of Alberta’s aerospace industry that significantly contributes innovation, growth and diversification to Alberta’s economy,” says Jessica Lucenko, director of communications at Alberta Economic Development and Trade.

The government also promotes the province’s UAV industry at international trade shows and helps export-ready companies enter new target markets. In May, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a collaboration agreement on unmanned systems technologies and trade development.

Calgary has only large-urban test site in North America

The City of Calgary has created the only site in North America within a large urban centre that enables the private sector, post-secondary institutions and other organizations to test UAVs and other autonomous vehicles. The 50-hectare Point Trotter Autonomous Systems Testing Area opened in October.

“We’re much further ahead than other municipalities in trying to understand how to support the diversification of these technologies, while still following the regulatory system,” says Patti Dunlop, business development manager, transportation & logistics, for Calgary Economic Development. Last month, Calgary also launched its “Living Lab” initiative, which enables companies to test their technologies, including autonomous systems, in city-owned public spaces, buildings, transportation corridors and other assets.

“I cannot over-emphasize how big a deal the new urban test site for UAVs is,” says Chris Healy, owner and operator of IN-FLIGHT Data, a UAV operations and training firm in Calgary. The site, which has already attracted NASA and Amazon, is critical for commercializing UAV technologies that can work safely in large cities, he says. Healy’s company, working with Transport Canada and NAV Canada, has flown a civilian UAV weighing less than 25 kilograms in beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights over Calgary – the first for a major city in North America. Another Calgary firm, Canadian UAVS, was granted the first permit in Canada to conduct BVLOS flights to inspect remote oil and gas assets.

Calgary’s other advantages include a strong entrepreneurial and engineering base, with expertise in geomatics, global positioning systems, wireless communications and UAV software development. Post-secondary institutions in the city and the private sector offer UAV operator training. “Calgary really has it all when it comes to UAV technologies and the ecosystem around those technologies,” Healy says.

Worldwide revenues for non-military UAVs are projected to total $73.5 billion over the next decade, according to the World Civil Unmanned Aerial Systems Market Profile & Forecast 2017.

Alberta’s UAV industry is “globally competitive and well positioned and strategically networked to take advantage of trade and investment opportunities in an array of commercial, industrial, agricultural and civilian applications,” Lucenko says. In Alberta, drones are being deployed in oil and gas inspections, public safety, law enforcement, precision agriculture, environmental and wildlife management, utility and power line inspection, wildfire detection, search and rescue, disaster relief, urban infrastructure inspection, forest seeding, mapping, media production and others areas.

National roadmap, supportive policy needed

Canada was a world leader in UAVs a few years ago, but has slipped due to lack of supportive federal government policy and timely regulations, industry participants say. In contrast, President Donald Trump last year signed an executive order aimed at expanding the UAV industry in the U.S. “We have no such policy direction in Canada,” Aruja says.

However, Transport Canada’s proposed new regulations – expected before the end of the year – will standardize and bring regulatory certainty to the Canadian UAV industry, which will help attract investors, he says. But to regain global leadership and realize the full economic benefits of UAVs – including huge potential in the Arctic – Canada needs a national roadmap with “coherent policy” for deploying beyond-visual-line-of-sight systems, Aruja says.


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