Drones overcome remote challenges

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — On July 1, 2021, during a time of “cancel Canada Day” activism, Jacob Taylor was about to embark on a technological and conciliating endeavour that would become a procurement game-changer for Far North communities.

Taylor, who was the chief executive officer and founder of Pontiac Group Inc., entered into a partnership with Volantus Aerospace to form his new company, Indigenous Aerospace, expanding his work with drone technology.

Based out of Fort William First Nation, Taylor explained this new chapter began at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through his work with Health Canada and Indigenous Services Canada where he used drones to move vaccines and COVID samples back and forth from island First Nation communities.

He says drone technology has become instrumental in helping First Nation leaders overcome challenges such as mining companies encroaching on their land or documenting the impacts of mining within their region.

“Also through the work of Indigenous Aerospace, we’re training Indigenous pilots in (northern) communities and providing work to those pilots so that they can have economic opportunities within this nascent and developing sector in the country,” Taylor said.

“We use drones to document mining, forestry and dumping within the region. We use drones to do search and rescue missions finding lost hunters or fishermen, for water surveillance and river flow levels. We use them to monitor beluga whale and caribou migration patterns, and we even use the drones to accent education within classrooms either training the teacher or training students in drone technology.”

He says drone technology “really inspires” young people into science, technology, engineering and math careers, and even the aerospace industry.

“That’s also a really important piece to our community efforts is that we motivate young people to be really interested in school again. The drones connect them to the land, and they can go out and take really great photos of themselves and their families on the land. There’s a myriad of things that we do with the technology.”

Taylor recounted two northern communities that are using drones to move items to and from the mainland. Pharmaceuticals, groceries and supplies are among the items transported more than three kilometres over the unstable spring and fall ice. Another northern community is using drone technology to move water samples to the mainland for quick testing.

“Traditionally, the water is the main mode of transportation, whether that’s boats in the summer or snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles in the winter,” he said. “In fall and spring, the water is not stable enough for any of those modes, and so historically, they’ve used helicopters — and those helicopters are $2,500 an hour to operate. A drone is a quarter of that price.”

Taylor says depending on the budget, the distance that needs to be covered and the temperatures that are flown in affect the carrying capacity of the drone.

“Drones around a 50-pound capacity are very common. The typical payloads that we’re working with right now are 10 kilograms, (22 pounds),” he said. “Lithium batteries do not perform very well in extreme cold. But there’s been fascinating developments over the last few years with battery pack warmers and with paint that actually wicks away water so that ice cannot freeze up on the propellers and the rest of the drone equipment.”

He added that they are seeing the emergence of hybrid engines where there’s a small gasoline generator on board that will power the drone battery.

Taylor says his company operates under a visioning and strong model that is aligned with their support of Indigenous people’s political movements through the efforts of the company. Indigenous Aerospace continues to train Indigenous people with drone technology so that they can do the drone work for themselves, he said.

“Also, drones are (better) for the environment because they have low greenhouse gas emissions and are used for environmental documentation purposes while supporting the communities. On the low end, we have the profit as an outcome and ambition as a business model,” he said.

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal