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Canada Drone deliveries: Canada Post looks to the future of mail

An Australia Post drone is pictured during trials of delivering packages from the air in this handout picture taken in Melbourne, Australia, April 15, 2016.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

It's a little early to tell if the idea will fly, but Canada Post is starting to look at the role of drones in making deliveries.

The post office is quietly exploring the possibility of small, unmanned aerial vehicles one day helping get the mail to where it needs to go, said Jon Hamilton, a Canada Post spokesman.

"We are in a competitive space, especially when it comes to parcel delivery and things like that," Hamilton said in an interview.

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In the post office's 250-year history, the manner of getting letters and parcels to Canadians has evolved from a couple of horses to trains, trucks and planes — so it makes sense to eye lightweight, remote-controlled aircraft, he said.

"We do look into these things."

The tiny flying machines have become immensely popular with hobbyists. But they're also used for a variety of government-related and commercial applications, including agricultural surveys, movie shoots, police investigations, meteorology, and search and rescue.

Canada Post declined to release documents through the Access to Information Act about its interest in drones, citing sensitivities such as trade secrets and financial, commercial, scientific or technical data.

But Hamilton insists there are no drone prototypes in the post office laboratory — at least not yet.

He characterized the effort as a "paper exercise" at the very early exploratory stages, aimed at "examining what's out there today."

"Is it at a point yet where it's worth doing anything concrete in terms of testing? And so far, no," Hamilton said.

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"It's not something that Canadians are going to see any time soon, if at all."

Still, Canada Post is conscious that companies such as online retailer Amazon are actively investigating delivery drones.

"It may be something that has applications for the postal service," Hamilton said. "But it may be something that is just more of an emerging threat to the existing postal business, and how do we respond to that?"

Amazon bills Prime Air as a future service that will deliver packages weighing up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones. The company says it has developed more than a dozen vehicle designs, with testing under way in multiple international locales, including British Columbia.

With the growth of online shopping, Canada Post is grappling with the challenges of delivering more parcels to almost 16 million addresses across the country.

For the moment, the Crown corporation is focusing on better using its network of 13,000 vehicles and 6,000 post offices to get the mail to customers. That means using online technology to help people track parcels, testing same-day delivery in some major markets and offering flexible delivery options.

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Canada Post realizes technology is accelerating a lot faster these days, and "as things change we continue to look at new options," Hamilton said.

"There was a lot of time between moving from horses to trains. Things don't move that slowly anymore."

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