Allen Tan from Applied Research and Innovation Services (ARIS) at SAIT operates the controls to pilot a drone.

The idea of the city as a living lab for the experimentation and innovation driving the new economy is taking off in southeast Calgary.

High above the grassy fields that cover the sprawling Shepherd Landfill, a growing number of private companies and post-secondary institutions are using the city property as a testing ground for their latest technology in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

Calgary has long been a centre for aviation and the aerospace sector and is now quietly emerging as one of the global hubs in the field of autonomous systems. It is one of the first major cities in North America to allow for mass testing of UAVs.

As with the internet, GPS and other technologies, drones originated in the military, but recently they’ve become popular consumer products and powerful tools for business. Drones are used commercially for photography and videography, remotely inspecting facilities, delivering small payloads and a growing list of others tasks.

The UAV technology has found growing markets in several industries – including infrastructure, energy, agriculture, transportation and logistics, and media/entertainment – all key sectors for Calgary’s economic growth and diversification.

Industry forecasts predict double-digit growth for the sector for the next decade and beyond.

The testing at the Shepherd site is part of the Living Lab initiative launched earlier this year by the City of Calgary in partnership with Calgary Economic Development. It is a system for companies to apply to use select municipal properties and facilities – everything from city landfills and parking garages – to test their technology.

“The idea for the Living Lab has been around for a long time but what we brought was process,” Andrew Sedor, Business Development Coordinator in Transportation Strategy for the City of Calgary, explained during a recent demonstration of drone technology.

Facilities are current available for testing autonomous and unmanned vehicles – aerial and ground.

The Living Lab is based in part on a streamlined application process that Calgary Economic Development created and is currently used by the City to make locations available for film and TV production. As Sedor noted, the logistical and legal liability issues are similar in both industries.

“What we’re doing now is creating an asset catalogue of all the city’s facilities,” he said. “We want to do the same thing as the film industry does in technology. We are looking to connect with industry and academia and provide them with a variety of testing facilities that can help support and grow their research and/or business.’”

The Living Lab initiative is one of the tools Calgary can use to achieve the goals set out in the long term Economic Strategy that City Council approved in June. They include being the most innovative and the most business friendly city in Canada.

The City is working to align with industry, academics and others to become a stronghold in technology development and the aerospace sector is embracing the opportunity.

Aerospace has strong ties to Calgary through airlines such as Ward Air, Canadian Airlines, WestJet and Swoop, as well as a variety of manufacturers and suppliers. There are in excess of 2,500 businesses related to the aerospace sector in Calgary and the local post secondaries – particularly the University of Calgary and SAIT – are working with top global companies and conducting world-leading aerospace research and development. 

Emerging high-growth areas such as UAVs and autonomous systems offer the next wave of opportunity and the industry is already established.  Alberta is home to 25 per cent of all the UAV, geospatial and navigation companies in Canada and most are based in Calgary.

"I think it's safe to say that we could declare ourselves as the unmanned systems hub in Canada,” Robyn Bews, Director, Sales & Sector Development, Calgary Economic Development, told CBC-TV in a recent story on the fast-growing sector.

A wave of unprecedented technology advances is transforming all industries but with the key players in sectors like aerospace at work together in the Living Lab, prospects for vibrant and diverse economy in the city are looking up.

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