The Sky’s the Limit
Drone Delivery Canada hopes to create a highway in the sky for parcel delivery.
Some of the largest tech giants in the world are moving away from traditional delivery methods. Google’s Project Wings and Amazon’s Prime Air are just two examples of how drone delivery is taking the market by storm. Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) is looking to harness drone technology and build a logistics platform fit to reach Canadians in some of the most remote regions.
Located in Vaughn, ON, DDC was founded three years ago by brothers Tony and Paul Di Benedetto, who had a long history of building up successful technology-focused businesses. After selling their previous business in 2013, the duo wanted to direct their energies to finding the next big tech disruptor.
“We thought there was a huge market that could potentially be opened up and the drone industry really fascinated us,” explains Tony, chief executive officer at Drone Delivery Canada.
However, the brothers were faced with a lot of questions: Can this concept be commercialized? What are the regulatory issues? And who are the main stakeholders within the sector?
“We are really taking baby steps to start executing and building up a platform and getting all of the stakeholders on board to scale it,” Tony adds. “It’s an enormous undertaking.”
When the brothers first entered the drone technology market, it was very much in its infancy. The only available drones were designed to suit hobbyists and recreational needs and that just didn’t work for this particular application.
“The industry, in many ways, isn’t moving fast enough,” explains Paul Di Benedetto, the chief technology officer at Drone Delivery Canada. “And commercial drone technology is still in the development stage.”
To develop a logistics platform and commence testing, DDC needed to develop their own cargo drones to meet the unique specifications of the Canadian delivery market. The company reached out to various governmental agencies and academic institutions to bring together the best minds in drone technology.
There are three main components involved in this technology. The core component is the back-end application system called FLYTE, which acts as the brain of the system – scheduling, managing routes, coordinating between users, regulatory bodies and the UAVs.
The second component is the logic that sits on the drone and enables it to safely operate unmanned. Paul explains that they have been working closely with engineers at the University of Waterloo to develop the embedded system, which is at about 80% completion.
The third component is the drone itself. For its development, DDC has worked primarily with the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) and the mechanical engineering faculty to design and develop commercial-grade airframes.
“Sometimes, what we believe in theory makes a lot of sense,” explains Tony. “But, in practicality, does not. We do a lot of testing, almost every single day. Our solution is very unique for what we are trying to do so it requires some tweaking. We have been plugging away at design and development but have definitely made huge strides.”
The smallest drone they are working with at the moment is just under 80 inches, which is significantly larger than most drones currently available. Most drones also can’t survive repeated flights in some of the harshest weather conditions.
“In Canada, the weather can range from -50° all the way up to +50°,” says Paul. “So it’s a really big swing and a lot of consumer products out there just don’t fit this need. Also, a lot of components aren’t designed to those manufacturing specifications, so that’s been a significant design challenge…Some of the adhesives being used or the technology doesn’t withstand the extremes we need…And when we do find components that meet this, they are often heavy or they don’t exist at all. And that’s makes building the lightest, fastest, most durable drone challenging.”
To date, DDC has developed a number of different prototypes that fit into specific delivery categories, so as not to have a massive fleet of many different kinds of UAVs. They typically organize the drones into different payloads, with 5-10lbs being a typical sweet spot for most clients. They also needed to consider if the prototypes were to be used for short or long-distance runs.
“It’s a complete balance between designing something for weight and distance,” Paul adds.
This is why their partnerships with the University of Toronto and Waterloo are so important. DDC is able to bring their design concepts to the teams of highly skilled engineers, who collaborate on and review all proposed solutions to see what best fits the drone delivery system needs.
Throughout the process, the team was tasked with designing something that was both extremely strong yet very light and energy efficient. Currently, 60-80% of the overall build is made up of carbon fibre. However, the team has toyed with the idea of integrating graphene into the airframe.
“We are able to utilize graphene to replace traditional copper wires, which eliminates a lot of weight and it is a very efficient conductor,” explains Tony. “This helps extend battery life and we are also exploring graphene battery technology. It is really using next-gen materials to maximize efficiencies.”
Through this process and collaboration, the brothers say they are learning more and more each day. Testing has provided some valuable insights into the market and client needs as well as feasibility.
“Besides weather, aerodynamics was a significant design challenge,” Paul adds. “Even though you want the most aerodynamic shape, it’s not necessarily the best shape for the application. You don’t want a massive drone moving a small package around.”
In October 2016, DDC received its first commercial test licence from Transport Canada and began testing their UAV prototype and logistics platform in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. The platform itself is designed to be drone agnostic; when more commercial cargo drones become available, the team can integrate their logic into any airframe.
The delivery system operates in the company’s private cloud, while the autopilot system sits within the airframe/drone. Through a variety of different communication systems including satellite, the drone communicates with company servers at the DDC mission control.
In the network operation centre, trained staff and pilots are able to oversee the fleet of drones while they operate and execute their missions. According to the company, one pilot can oversee 50 drones.
Testing is underway and DDC recently oversaw their drone from a 125km distance. They are looking to do more extensive testing at Transport Canada’s drone testing site in Foremost Alberta, where they can conduct an “out of sight” test of up to 3000km.
The company also recently partnered with Staples to enable the drone delivery technology in up to 250 locations. Staff is trained on how to load and unload, swap batteries, etc. DDC oversees the flights, monitoring and managing the missions as they are happening in real-time.
“The drones have a combination of different technologies and sensors,” explains Tony. “There is definitely GPS and other sensors involved, such as LIDAR and some proprietary systems that we have developed on our own. It is a multitude of different systems working together to make all of this happen.”
For now, the brothers are taking a conservative approach with their drone delivery system and are working with Transport Canada to help develop a framework for the industry. They hope to obtain their licence by the end of the year and move into commercialization with drone delivery expected in early 2018. They will commence flying in remote areas of Canada while building up a network and deploying into more locations. Yet, the brothers believe urban delivery is still a ways out.
“At the end of the day, this is a brand new industry and we are the early movers,” says Tony. “We are really starting to see the drone market and industry open up. There is a large appetite of people willing to invest. And, as the technology continues to evolve, the whole idea of autonomous vehicles proves to have practical applications that can help Canadians.”