Pontiac Group was co-founded by visionary entrepreneurs Jonathon Araujo, Odawa from the Wikwemikong First Nation; and Jacob Taylor, Mississauga from Curve Lake First Nation. The Ohsweken, Ontario-based business acts as a think tank, innovating solutions for problems impacting governments and corporations, while delivering niche marketing and Indigenous communications. (Photo Courtesy of Pontiac Group Inc.)
Last summer, Native Business interviewed the masterminds behind Pontiac Group about their latest project to deliver life-saving medical supplies via drones to remote First Nations communities. Suddenly, there is a pressing need for such a service.
“We are actively seeking projects for support amid COVID-19,” Pontiac Group co-founder Jacob Taylor, Mississauga from Curve Lake First Nation, told Native Business, adding that Pontiac Group encourages First Nations and Tribes across North America to reach out: http://pontiacgroup.ca/#contact.
Within its immediate fleet, Pontiac Group is equipped with 10 drones ready to deploy medical products — such as testing kits, test samples or other medical supplies — to more isolated First Nations communities across North America.
Called Sparrow drones, they can ship 4.5 kilograms (or nearly 10 pounds) over 45-kilometer distances (that’s nearly 28 miles).
“10 Sparrows are in stock and we have the pilots to staff them,” Taylor told Native Business. “Our drones can be temperature controlled to get medical products in or out of isolated regions.”
Taylor added that Pontiac Group’s drones can additionally deliver perishable and non-perishable household goods to self-quarantined communities. “We are an answer to social distancing and self-quarantine factors, among other responses to COVID-19,” Taylor underscored.
If the COVID-19 outbreak escalates and demand for drone delivery and capacity increases, Pontiac Group is able to manufacture custom drones to travel greater distances (200 kilometers) and weight (180 kilograms, or nearly 400 pounds).
Meanwhile, Pontiac Group says it is working quickly with government lobby bodies on angles to deploy drones now.
Taylor offered an overview of the situation In Canada: “Our National Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has declared a state of emergency and is pressing for answers…. We are working to get to that table, as we can be crucial in remote locations where many First Nations find themselves.”
Native Business’ feature on Pontiac Group by contributor Theresa Braine originally appeared in Native Business Magazine’s summer 2019 print edition. We share it again below.
First Nation tech innovators link remote Indigenous communities to lifesaving medical supplies by drone
By Theresa Braine
The young woman needed a tank of oxygen. But there was none to be had in the remote First Nation community, and a pilot and chopper could not be mobilized fast enough. She passed away before oxygen could arrive, as she and her family waited at the airport.
A pilot program under way to deliver medical supplies by drone aims to save lives such as hers, and provide time-sensitive health care for anyone living remotely who needs it, from a community member who goes to a remote hunting camp and forgets his or her medicine, to blood-testing kits — or even blood — that enable people to get medical care without having to travel themselves.
The initiative involves several entities, and Pontiac Group Inc. is the lynchpin between them.
“That’s essentially what we do,” said Jonathon Araujo Redbird, managing partner of Pontiac Group, a company he founded with Jacob Taylor to match and bridge remote First Nations and Inuit communities with companies in urban centers. “We see challenges happening in a community — we try to seek out solutions using innovation and technology.”
Araujo, Odawa from the Wikwemikong First Nation, and Taylor, Mississauga from Curve Lake First Nation, are seeking to link remote indigenous communities with opportunities, and lifesaving supplies, from further south.
Medical supplies are often in short supply for residents of remote First Nation and Inuit communities, and food is expensive. In communities with a high incidence of HIV and diabetes, blood testing is essential, and a lot of people don’t do it regularly because access is difficult. With the drone project, a drone could take blood to the lab as opposed to flying the actual person, for instance.
Working with Drone Delivery Canada, Pontiac aims to take away some of these difficulties and lower the cost of moving supplies. Drone Delivery Canada, a public company traded on the NASDAQ and TSX Venture exchanges, named Pontiac its official National Indigenous Relations Advisor in March 2017.
The two have complementary goals.
“We don’t just sell a drone. We sell a complete solution, which is a logistics solution,” Drone Delivery President and CEO Michael Zahra said.
After a few years and thousands of test runs, the technology is ready to go, Zahra told Native Business. This year they’re seeking customers.
“And one of the main markets we’re looking to penetrate are the First Nations and Inuit nations in Canada,” Zahra said. “The cargo can be anything, but the most common need in the First Nation and Inuit communities is typically going to be around medical or food.”
Supplies can be delivered “anywhere the access is difficult because of remoteness, weather” or when time is of the essence. They can fly in adverse weather, at night, and in other challenging conditions, noted Zahra.
“It could be you’re transporting actual blood,” Zahra said, in which case things like temperature control, fast arrival and other factors come into play. Defibrillators could also be delivered by drone.
Out of about a thousand remote First Nation and Inuit communities, “our hope is to penetrate about 20 percent, or 200 of them over the next few years,” said Zahra. “Some of these communities, especially in northern Canada, have zero access, and the next neighboring town could be hundreds of kilometers away.”
Moose Cree First Nation is a perfect starting point for pilot programs and establishing procedures, said Stan Kapeshesit, the economic development director. It’s situated at the southern end of James Bay in northern Ontario, which makes it a good jumping-off point for deliveries farther north, as well as a candidate for drone delivery itself.
“We want to improve the standards of living and lower the cost of living for our people,” Kapeshesit said. “Up here it’s remote, and there’s not a lot of employment opportunities as well, and people don’t have a lot of money to spend on things.”
A huge part of that, and the starting point for the pilot project, is medical supplies. As remote as the community itself is, its members often venture far outside even that infrastructure, Kapeshesit noted. Moose Cree Nation signed a $2.5 million deal with Drone Delivery Canada in December to deliver such services.
“A lot of people still practice the Cree tradition of living on the land, and if they had an emergency situation of needing medicine delivered, we could deploy the drone and have the medicine delivered right to their camp,” Kapashesit said.
Moose Cree First Nation is essentially divided in half, with the main town, Moosonee, on the banks of the Moose River. The other half, Moose Factory, is on an island in the middle of the river. In summer one can boat across and get supplies there that way, and in winter one can snowmobile or drive. But in fall and spring, when the ice is too thick for boats but too slushy for trucks or snowmobiles, the river is all but impassable. During those seasons, a chopper is the only way in. And that costs money — $1,800Canadian an hour — and timing depends on the availability of a pilot, and other factors.
A drone could simply be packed up, programmed and sent on its way, a “nice, quick, safe, reliable alternative,” Zahra said.
Pontiac aims to be a bridge between western-style thinking and Indigenous ways.
“What we do essentially is we work with First Nation communities across the country,” said Taylor. “We look for solutions and how we can bridge the two worlds.”
Native communities operate from a strong community perspective, Araujo noted. “They’re more about community, they’re more about well-being, with money not necessarily being about the top priority.”
Pontiac will, for instance, go into a meeting and bring entrepreneurs from western culture to the table with elders and community leaders.
Invariably, the entrepreneurs are “used to the fast-paced environment, go, go, go, and they often can’t communicate with the elder who takes their time to think about what’s been said, really digest those words, and takes their time to provide a response,” Araujo said. “That often in a business meeting creates a lot of tension.”
Pontiac slows down the entrepreneurs, helps them take it one step at a time, and build trust. “There’s a lot of mistrust” from the Indigenous side, Araujo noted, dating back hundreds of years.
“Essentially we weren’t invited to the table of confederation,” said Araujo. “And 152 years later, we’re still not invited to the table in innovation and technology.”
Pontiac wants to change that. First Nations are uniquely suited to entrepreneurship and innovation, Araujo noted.
“Our communities as nomadic people are more adaptive to change than any other people in the country,” said Araujo. “We’re the most fitted for this new age technology.”
The pilot program is delivering medical supplies such as blood-testing kits for HIV and for newborns, and clean needles, Taylor said.
That was in the initial, 1.7-kilogram payload from Transport Canada.
For the next one, they have been approved for a 400-pound payload, Taylor said. With that they could eventually branch into other items, such as auto parts.
Right now they’re doing flights under 100 kilometers. The drone can travel up to 200 kilometers per hour, Araujo said. It takes off and lands from a “drone depot” that’s not unlike a helipad.
It also is equipped with technology monitoring the weather, wind, videotaping and GPS imaging.
Drone Delivery Canada has three drones, two of them electric and the other gasoline-powered, said Zahra. There’s the Sparrow, which can carry 10 pounds of cargo, including blood and blood tests, small parcels, ecommerce and mail, and ranges 20 miles to 40 miles per hour.
Then there’s the Robin, which can transport about 25 pounds, with a range of 40 miles. After that it’s a big jump to the gas-fueled Condor, which has a range of 150 miles and can carry 400 pounds of cargo, Zahra said.
There are six dropoff points in six locations. For instance, there can be one depot at the closest regional hospital, and another at a facility in the remote community. A nursing station might have yet another depot. The goal is to get drone depots at post offices as well, in major urban centers and in the communities.
“It’s the last mile that’s the most difficult and the most expensive,” said Zahra. “And that’s really where we come in.”
The goal right now is to demonstrate the capabilities, Araujo said.
“We have about four drone routes at this time within the First Nation context,” Araujo said. “We just signed an arrangement with Air Canada to do 150,000 drone routes within the next 10 years under the Air Canada granting.”
The drones look kind of like a mini-helicopter, but without a cockpit, since no one’s flying it.
“That’s the thing,” said Araujo. “There’s no longer a need to wake a pilot out of bed, get him to drive to the air pad, get him all situated and send him off. Now with the click of a button from a remote area you can have a drone take off.”
If someone at a remote hunting camp has a heart attack, for instance, a drone can be sent with a defibrillator that would arrive long before an ambulance would.
“You’re not going to get an ambulance there,” Zahra said. “If they’ve got an app on their phone, we can drop off a defibrillator.”
Araujo and Taylor see the lifesaving benefits of drone delivery extending far beyond health care. Connecting in this way to the densely populated regions closer to the U.S. border will boost the lives of First Nation and Inuit residents, they hope.
“We’ve got to bring our people to the table of innovation and technology and lead the path to entrepreneurship,” Araujo said. “It’s just natural for us to be entrepreneurs.”
Moreover, Indigenous people have a lot to offer, Araujo added.
“We are the fastest-growing demographic. We have the highest youth population,” Araujo said. “We as Indigenous people are most resilient and adaptive to change. So why are we not at the table of innovation and technology?”