The NWT can become a new hub for putting drones, cars, and mining equipment through their paces – but needs to act fast to fulfill untapped potential, experts say.
A working group featuring the NWT government, Yellowknife Airport, the City of Yellowknife, and NWT Tourism is now working on marketing the area as a cold-weather testing destination.
Speaking at the Opportunities North conference in Yellowknife last week, Randy Straker – manager of the city's airport – said the territory is locked in competition with other locations, some of which simply simulate chilly conditions, to offer the perfect cold-weather testing environment.
The industry is already big business, in some cases literally so. Facilities built for cold-weather testing can sometimes house aircraft as large as a Boeing 747.
Governments are getting in on the act. In Thompson, Manitoba, a year-round facility for engine testing and certification was developed in a partnership between the federal and provincial governments and private industry.
Right now, Straker said, Fairbanks, Alaska is the NWT's main competitor. The upside for Yellowknife is the city's many cold, clear days compared to Fairbanks' coastal climate, as well as the Canadian dollar.
Competition is growing across the circumpolar world, said Erik Hoogstraten, the department head of Yukon College's school of community, education, and development. Eastern European nations, alongside Russia, are opening up to cold-weather research, he said, but Canada is still considered geopolitically more stable. "We're a fairly safe country. Our dollar is competitive right now," Hoogstraten said.
Alex Lowe, who manages air services development at Edmonton International Airport, said Yellowknife has an added benefit: privacy.
Testing often takes place using prototypes which have yet to be made public. "The last thing these companies want is their products all over the internet," said Lowe.
Lowe said the NWT's large, frozen lakes help tests of technologies like driverless cars. On a similar note, Straker said aircraft manufacturers like Airbus and Bell Helicopters enjoy making use of the equally sparsely populated NWT airspace.
The industry has grown in the NWT without, until recently, much focus on actively expanding it.
Straker said Yellowknife Airport is now actively including cold-weather testing in its plans.
"Sikorsky, Bombardier, Porsche, and General Motors have all done testing up here, but as an airport we've never really focused on that as an alternative source of revenue," he said.
Now, the airport will look to position itself as a facilitator of the industry, providing logistics support and connecting businesses based at the airport with companies who need testing support.
That means changing demands on the airport's infrastructure – in future, there could be questions over whether spaces are big enough to house the right aircraft, and whether NWT runways are long enough.
Away from the airport, those concerns extend to Yellowknife's capacity to host the testers themselves.
In 2017, Yellowknife was said to have lost out on an estimated $2 million as car manufacturer Mitsubishi and aerospace company Embraer cancelled cold-weather tests due to lack of hotel space. (This account was later disputed by some members of Yellowknife's hospitality industry.)
Matt Mossman, the president of Det'on Cho Logistics, told the panel the city needs a dedicated facility with an adjoining "bunk house or hotel" to host cold-weather testing. His company has, he said, been facilitating such tests for a decade – including the laying of fibre-line to upgrade the airport's internet capabilities on Bell Helicopters' behalf.
Quoting statistics from Bell's visit, airport manager Straker estimated $2.3 million was injected into Yellowknife's economy, with spending on accommodation, food, and other needs for more than 40 Bell employees.
“If we can do this yearly with just one visit, it’s a significant amount of money,” Straker said.
The right roads for driverless cars
Aircraft and vehicles have been the major players in NWT cold-weather testing to date. However, Hoogstraten said, other industries with an interest include mining and drone technology.
Driverless vehicles, in particular, will need to be tested in environments where roads don't have painted lines – like many of the NWT's roads and lakes.
Straker said meetings have already taken place with companies planning to manufacture drones for the Canadian government, "opening up a whole new market."
The needs of the North – like the delivery of medication, food, and time-sensitive items to hard-to-reach areas – might even help drone companies overcome regulatory hurdles in Canada, Hoogstraten said. "That's of great interest to drone companies."
Hoogstraten sees Indigenous nations leading the creation of some opportunities. He referenced the nearly one megawatt of solar panels installed in Old Crow, which required cold-weather testing before being installed. "First Nations have been in the territories for in excess of 30,000 years," he said. "I would hazard a guess that they may know a thing or two about living in cold-weather environments, and certainly have done cold-weather testing for the entire period they've been up here."
With an expected expansion of broadband using low orbit satellites in the coming years, the challenge of a remote and sparsely populated territory will also be mitigated – allowing access to testing on broader scales, and in more remote locations, than ever before.
"There's no reason that you shouldn't be able to sit, for instance, on Herschel Island and do cold-weather research if you have broadband," Hoogstraten said.