The Government of Canada made a pair of major funding announcements on June 26, with more than $4 million being given to UCalgary and SAIT for the development of aerospace and industry connections.
UCalgary will be receiving $2.5 million for the development of an Aerospace Innovation Hub, which will connect the institution to small- and medium-sized companies in the city.
More than $1.4 million is being given to SAIT to support Canada’s first remotely-piloted training centre for heavy-lift drones. That centre will offer training, maintenance, and certification and is expected to be among the most advanced in North America.
“These are very important announcements for our city in our economy,” said Calgary-Skyview MP George Chahal, who made the announcement alongside Minister for PrariesCan, Dan Vandal.
“We are leading in the aerospace sector… and this is very important to build a strong future economy and sustainable jobs in Calgary.”
The funding is being provided from the federal government’s Aerospace Regional Recovery Initiative.
Chahal acknowledged that there were already market-leading aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in Calgary, but said that the investment by the federal government would connect institutions like the University of Calgary to entrepreneurs.
“These are the people who actually need to have their heads in the clouds, as they work to help fill the growing demand for skilled workers in aerospace,” he said.
The investment is expected to create 95 jobs, provide training for 160 participants in programs, and support 25 small- and medium-sized firms, said the Government of Canada.
Minister Vandal said that the investment into Calgary was a result of interest by the aerospace industry for more growth in the city.
“It’s only through working cooperatively with the industry, with the university, with the provincial government, that we will continue to grow the sector,” he said.
AERIUM Analytics CEO and Vice Chair for the Aerial Evolution Association of Canada, Jordan Cicoria, said that some of the biggest hurdles for commercialization for drone companies were access to funding, alongside access to research and development technologies.
“Those pieces accelerate you not only to commercialization but get you over that initial commercialization hump,” Cicoria said.
“The more that we can work with our universities, work with academia and government to help support and grow these technologies, and this IP in Canada so it can stay in Canada, will help us become a global leader.”
Aerospace hub building on already successful model
Nima Nijand, Director of the Life Sciences Hub at Innovate Calgary, said that innovation hubs have been both successful and important for UCalgary.
He said that a major benefit to the institution was to take feedback direct from industry.
“One of the critical pieces is talking to industry and understanding does this solve an immediate gap, or can we pivot or change it a little bit to better fit with their pipeline and their technologies,” Nijand said.
“Building that bridge between industry and the university is what the hub does and gives companies and entrepreneurs and the University of Calgary an opportunity to test out their technologies.”
The aerospace hub, he said, would allow companies to use equipment that already exists at the university but is underutilized to assist in prototyping, doing advanced manufacturing, and advanced testing.
“There are hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment that’s suitable for companies to use at the University of Calgary that isn’t at full capacity, and what we hope to do is create a concierge program,” Nijand said.
Nijand said that the hub model would also assist students looking to become the next generation of Calgary entrepreneurs.
That would include an expansion of the already successful accelerator model used at the Life Sciences Hub to provide technical degree graduates with two years of business training that would prepare them to run companies and be able to talk and receive investment from venture capitalists and angel investors.
UCalgary, said Nijand, was already underway in purchasing some of the equipment for the Aerospace Innovation Hub, and that an announcement of where it would be located would be made later this year.
Investment to make a big impact for drone companies in Calgary
Cicoria said that having access to the advanced materials facilities at UCalgary would be a big benefit to the many different drone startup companies in Alberta.
“We started building these companies, but then we started noticing there’s gaps in the equipment that’s available and the technologies that are out there. They can work, but they’re not really perfect,” he said.
“Having access to advanced materials, testing, access to rapid printing, rapid prototyping for anyone who’s out of operations and moving more into production or development of new technologies – it’s immense.”
He said that it vastly lowers the cost to use some of this equipment, which can run in the millions of dollars, along with the expense of getting time and talent to use that equipment. That’s often in the form of students who are experienced in working with the advanced materials industry wants to use.
Cicoria said that if his company had access to the kind of innovation hub when it first launched its drone product, it would have put them two or three years further ahead in development.
“It would have given us that ability to allocate resources differently, so we didn’t have to spend so much on research and development—just stumbling through it,” he said.
The R&D was used by AERIUM Analytics to create the RoBird, which is a flapping wing drone that mimics the flight of a Peregrine Falcon.
“Not many people would actually see this as a drone. It does fall into that space. It is a flying aircraft. It has to follow the same rules and procedures that Transport Canada mandates,” Cicoria said.
That product has been used to prevent bird strikes at airports, reduce landings and moralities of birds on tailing ponds, and other innovative ways of ecologically addressing industry challenges.
“We’re moving into agriculture to prevent birds eating our food, especially with food scarcity becoming such a serious thing now,” he said.
Cicoria said that in Canada there has been a 41 per cent increase in the number of registered drones since December of 2022, with more than 86,000 across the nation.
“Just for context, there are only 33,000 aircraft registered in Canada right now, which just signifies that drones in aerospace, in Canada, and Calgary, are here to stay,” he said.