Using self-flying cargo planes to lower costs for remote communities

At a glance

The team

Mitacs Accelerate Entrepreneur intern Jeremy Wang, PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, and Ribbit Co-Founder and COO; Ribbit team; and supervisor Dr. Jean-Pierre Hickey, Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo.

The challenge

How to make air cargo transport faster, more affordable, and more reliable for Canada’s remote communities.

The solution

Self-flying commercial cargo planes that can get necessities like food and medicine to rural and remote communities more efficiently and at lower costs.

The outcome

Ribbit is on track to start a commercial pilot project by the middle of next year.

Jeremy Wang is on a mission to prove that planes no longer require humans in the cockpit. His ground-breaking work to develop Canada’s first autonomous cargo planes is on track for a commercial pilot project in 2024.

Dr. Jeremy Wang and his team at Toronto-based start-up Ribbit want to make life more affordable for Canadians living in remote communities. For Ribbit, that means proving that planes no longer require humans in the cockpit.

His ground-breaking work to develop Canada’s first autonomous cargo airline, which is on track to start a commercial pilot project by the middle of next year, started with drones.

“Our goal is to rewire the transportation network to be faster, more efficient and more accessible to remote communities that right now, don’t have reliable air transportation,” says Dr. Wang. Along with Ribbit Co-Founder and CEO Carl Pigeon, Dr. Wang started his career developing drone technology but soon recognized the need to focus on full-size aircraft to truly make an impact on transportation at scale.

“We’re not talking about shuttling executives from city to city, we’re talking about providing basic access to reliable transportation so that people living in rural and remote communities can get necessities like food and medicine on time,” he explains.

Working in collaboration with Transport Canada since its inception in 2020, Ribbit completed its first gate-to-gate, hands-free flight in 2021 – marking a first for Canada – and has demonstrated nearly 200 hours of successful autonomous flight since then, always with a human safety pilot on board.

“Our plane taxied out from the hangar, went to the runway, took off, flew around, landed and went back to the hangar, and the safety pilot did nothing but sit in the cockpit,” said Dr. Wang, adding that the long-term goal is to equip airlines with fleets of the company’s autonomous planes, which can safely fly using existing airport infrastructure.

Filling a gap in the cargo supply chain

The company’s design is based on retrofitting existing fixed-wing planes with a technology stack that allows them to taxi, take off, fly, and land autonomously. By removing the pilot, the planes have more room for cargo and eliminate scheduling barriers, freeing airlines to capitalize on nearly 15,000 under-utilized private airports across North America. The technology would provide more direct, non-stop flights between remote destinations, without the need to schedule pilots or travel through major airport hubs.

“When we first got started, we kept hearing from people in northern Canada about how terrible the supply chains were,” says Dr. Wang. “Flight schedules were infrequent and unreliable, and they wanted more options.”

The company has signed letters of intent with six leading online wholesaler/retailers serving the North and is working with Transport Canada to achieve regulatory approval to move forward with commercial flights. The company is already approved for flight testing without a human safety pilot on board and expects to complete its first truly autonomous flight next summer.

“Our technology has been tested, the regulatory framework is in place and there’s a real need for this. It’s time for autonomous air cargo to take flight,” he says.

Becoming an entrepreneur with Mitacs support

Wang is one of five winners of the 2023 Mitacs Entrepreneur Award, recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“As a graduate student, I had a very strong technical background, but I also believed that my impact on the world should be driven through entrepreneurship,” he says. “Mitacs orchestrated the bridge between academia and industry to facilitate a unique career path, allowing me to work as an intern at my own company while I simultaneously completed my degree.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.


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