'A small city': Building a hub for innovation at the Edmonton airport

The Edmonton International Airport (EIA) is building its business in a way that positions it at the heart of supporting and developing innovation in the region, says the woman in charge of making those big ideas happen.

"We're really a small city. We have real estate, commercial developments, waterways, (and) we create our own energy. We also have our big aviation and cargo sectors, the core purpose of our airport," Tara Mulrooney, vice-president of technology and innovation, told Taproot Edmonton's innovation podcast, Bloom.

"That gives us this really great testbed where we can try things that any larger city or smart city could do, but in a smaller context."

The level of innovation that EIA is tackling, with projects ranging from drone wildlife management to autonomous-vehicle airport security, is possible because it's a highly regulated environment. Mulrooney said that is crucial because if something can work in the airport, it can work anywhere.

One of the priorities for the airport is sustainability, and looking at how to make the airport itself and its terminal carbon-neutral. The airport has its own natural gas cogeneration facility, which Mulrooney said has helped reduce the terminals' electrical footprint by 50%.

It's also in the midst of building a solar farm in Airport City, which will reduce carbon emissions further.

When it comes to determining where to invest and focus first, Mulrooney said it comes down to how best to grow economic prosperity in the region. In addition to the sustainability pillar, the airport also looks at manufacturing, agriculture, and technology.

"We've been in talks with an organization where they create a 5G or 4G Plus ... simulation lab. And could we get that into our Airport City, which then would allow others to leverage that capability to expand their products and their services," Mulrooney explained.

And in manufacturing, it's looking at how the airport could use its free-trade zone to encourage businesses to bring in more raw materials and do light manufacturing. There are also opportunities to help agriculture companies connect with cargo providers and manufacturers to get products to the international market.

"It's a lot about us being that ... fulcrum to help connect different parts of the region, different municipalities, different businesses together," she said.

A Sparrow Drone hovers over an airfield in front of a crowd

A Sparrow Drone from Drone Delivery Canada lifts off from the airport as a demonstration of the first drone delivery cargo services from within restricted airspace in Canada. (Edmonton International Airport)

A commitment to diversity and inclusion is one of the reasons EIA is able to come up with solutions to complicated challenges so effectively, Mulrooney said.

"It isn't a notion," she explained, pointing to the equal representation of women and men on the executive team. "You get better solutions, you get better outcomes when you have folks who have different perspectives. To me, that is such a huge thing and maybe in Alberta, something that isn't very strong."

Mulrooney spent two decades in IT, but she warns against conflating technology and innovation.

"I think there's a lot of technology leaders who actually think innovation is technology. I don't agree with that. I think innovation is about getting to what the real problem is, not the symptoms," she said. And once they understand the core issues, they can turn the problem into an opportunity.

It's that mindset that helps Mulrooney consider her biggest innovation aspirations for the airport, including making it "the first true multimodal hub" with aircraft, rail, cargo, drones, and more.

She also wants everything to be integrated and wonders how the airport could look if baggage were taken care of ahead of time by a courier, and how it might be possible to create a near-autonomous building.

"How do we automate that building through business rules and IoT and really make it smart. Not just the hype smart, but manage our energy use; communicate with our passengers in a seamless way between the airlines and ourselves and other airports," Mulrooney said.

While those may be lofty goals, the key to achieving them will be in the approach. That's why Mulrooney envisions introducing a Dragons' Den-type approach where airport staff are encouraged to pitch their ideas and solutions.

"Innovation at our airport is really built into every operational piece and every person at the airport. The best ideas come from staff and the people that actually work those problems."

Listen to Tara Mulrooney's full interview on Episode 4 of Bloom.