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Thompson airport, SubZero North make significant strides in cold weather testing markets

Officials already seeing interest in use of testing facility from international markets

Ethan Butterfield · CBC News · Posted: Feb 19, 2023 7:17 AM CST | Last Updated: February 19

The Thompson Regional Airport Authority and SubZero North are making local and international strides with a newly-acquired cold weather testing facility.

“It’s exciting times at our airport,” said Curtis Ross, Thompson Airport CEO.

Ross, who recently attended the Winter Cities 2023 conference, says he wants to offer the facility for companies to test their products in the elements. The facility — called Area 55, a reference to Area 51 in the United States and Manitoba’s 55th parallel — was previously owned by the Ford Motor Company and has mainly been used to test vehicles. 

“There’s an autonomous snowplow that does sidewalks,” he said. “Drones are a big thing.

“They’re coming into their emerging markets for lots of different applications — mining applications, surveillance applications, inspection applications.”

A man with full frame glasses and grey hair smiles for a portrait photo
Curtis Ross, CEO of the Thompson Airport Authority, is excited about airport’s new cold weather testing facility. (Submitted by Mandy Wright)

Ford decided to part with the facility to focus on its own expansion, Ross said, and it was officially acquired by the airport authority on Dec. 1.

“Ford will still remain a primary client of the facility,” Ross said. “At the same time, we will now be able to broker it out.”

The testing facility

The facility is equipped with a cold chamber, more than a dozen hoists capable of lifting up to 5,440 kilograms, as well as fuelling and charging stations.

The airport doesn’t do any of the testing — it simply provides the space for those who come up to have their products tested.

“A lot of times they bring these vehicles in, they have to set them up with monitors and computers and everything to data capture whatever it is they’re testing,” he said.

“We provide that space and the necessary equipment for them to do that. And then really, they want to get out and they want to drive that vehicle or whatever it is, fly that widget, you know, out in the real –35, –40 [C] conditions.”

Both the airport and SubZero North, which promotes and facilitates cold weather testing in Thompson, are keen to offer the facility to local and international audiences.

The airport recently found success on an international level with an memorandum of understanding that came together with the help of SubZero North.

“We actually just signed a copy of the MOU this morning with a company called ZalaZONE,” said Laura Finlay, a spokesperson for SubZero North. “It’s an Innovation hub, research and development centre located in Hungary.”

“We’ve been actually working with them for about a year — not on a specific project, but just keeping in tune with what they’re doing, some of the different projects that are happening on the other side of the pond in Europe.”

Finlay says she hopes the work with ZalaZONE will lead to some positive outcomes.

“We will be working together and coming up with ideas of how we could help each other out,” she said. “Hopefully, it will lead to some real good, tangible projects that we can see — international projects between Thompson, Manitoba and in Hungary.”

Testing and training

SubZero North signed another memorandum with Mohawk College in Hamiliton, Ont. — “in particular with the department that works with drones,” Finla saidy. “They’re bringing to us, right now, opportunities for training individuals in northern Manitoba — specifically, Thompson and Churchill.”

“So if we do have companies that want to come up and test drones, we’d not only have places we could do it, but we could also have trained individuals … who can do work for them.”

Meanwhile, work on breaking ground for a new airport terminal building as well as planning for the next winter season means Ross is going to be busy.

“That’s the interesting part of the business,” he said. “It doesn’t just — because winter disappears, it doesn’t go away.

“You’re already planning and scheduling for the next test season as this one’s winding down, you know, whether it’s negotiating contracts or scheduling with partners that want to come in and use the facilities.”


Ethan Butterfield


Ethan Butterfield is a reporter based in Thompson, Man. Following previous reporting positions in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, Ethan works to cover Manitoba’s northern sector and engage with its various communities. Ethan has also been a part of various documentaries that have found success on the festival circuit. He can be reached at [email protected]

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