Autonomous airline set to increase food security in remote communities
Ribbit partners with Transport Canada to carry cargo to underserved communities in northern Canada
Ribbit partners with Transport Canada to carry cargo to underserved communities in northern CanadaBy Naomi Grosman Velocity
Autonomous airline Ribbit has signed a $1.3 million contract with Transport Canada to start testing its commercial cargo aircraft to deliver goods to northern Canada, starting in 2024.
“Ribbit ultimately exists to help improve access to transportation,” said Jeremy Wang (PhD ’23), co-founder and COO. "Our dream would be a future where anybody can receive goods quickly and reliably no matter where they are located.”
Wang said the company’s initial goal is to serve northern Canada, where about 120 million pounds of food gets delivered annually.
“These are northern, isolated communities where all cargo gets flown in by air and the cost of food and rates of food insecurity are very high,” Wang said.
The concept behind Ribbit is fairly straightforward. The company converts small aircrafts from pilot-flown, to self-flying by removing back passenger seats and adding in the appropriate software and hardware. Through this Transport Canada partnership, the company expects to retrofit a six-seater aircraft, allowing more room for cargo. Ribbit joined the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Incubator in 2019 while still in its ideation stage. Two years later it completed Canada’s first hands-free gate-to-gate flight, with co-founder Carl Pigeon on board.
Pigeon said communities that rely on the current model of airline cargo shipments receive deliveries as infrequently as biweekly. With Ribbit’s autonomous airplanes, those communities could receive cargo as often as daily.
“Right now, to keep costs down and profits up, cargo aircraft typically tend to be a lot larger and airlines fly less frequently to serve these communities,” Pigeon said. “What Ribbit does is we take a smaller aircraft and with autonomy we are able to drastically change the economy of that plane, so we are able to offer next-day or two-day service for these communities and improve their supply chain.”
The co-founders' shared passion for aviation, transportation and innovation was born in Canada, but they hope that Ribbit’s technology can have global impact.
“Carl and I chose Velocity because we knew the innovation ecosystem and support network for founders at the University of Waterloo is unmatched compared to anywhere else in Canada,” Wang said. “The goal is that once we have demonstrated that the technology can service northern Canada, we can replicate it in similar places such as Alaska, central Australia, islands in the Pacific and Caribbean and central Africa, all of which have the same issues with transportation.”
Velocity started as a University of Waterloo dorm residence in 2008 and has since helped entrepreneurs build scalable companies by creating optimal conditions for their growth. With 15 years of success, Velocity constantly evolves to better serve the startup community with founder-specific advisory and resources and has grown to see more than 400 companies create a total enterprise value of more than US$26 billion. With locations at the University campus and downtown Kitchener, Velocity operates specialized labs, tailored programs and provides access to capital, resources and advisers for rapid business development. Founders work with a network of industry-specific experts through various streams such as software, health tech and deep tech.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.