Ask a hundred people about drone deliveries, and there are better-than-normal odds that 99 of them will say something about Amazon. While autonomous drones are just a part of the eCommerce giant’s various projects, they’ve received plenty of R&D resources and marketing support from Seattle. Though there are other companies grappling with the future of drone deliveries in Asia and elsewhere, Amazon seems to be the not-yet-coronated king of such an imminent avant-garde retail landscape.
At least, it seemed that way until a few days ago when a little-known Australian startup claimed the throne of autonomous delivery for itself.
Associated Press reported on Friday (March 25) that Flirtey, a startup founded in Australia but recently relocated to its new Nevada headquarters, successfully completed what appears to be the United States’ first autonomous drone delivery in a residential environment. A town southeast of the capital Reno served as Flirtey’s aerial test track, where CEO Matt Sweeney told AP that his company’s six-rotor drone was pre-programmed with the GPS coordinates of its destination and successfully navigated its half-mile journey without incident during a test flight on March 10.
“Conducting the first drone delivery in an urban setting is a major achievement, taking us closer to the day that drones make regular deliveries to your front doorstep,” Sweeney said.
While Flirtey is certainly no Amazon, it’s not as if the Nevada test was some kind of fly-by-night operation. Though they weren’t needed, a manual pilot and line-of-sight observers were on standby, as were officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, like Chris Walach, director of operations for the FAA-approved drone test site that is the sparsely populated state of Nevada.
“This was, by far, one of the most successful [unmanned aircraft systems] operations we ran and represents an advanced level of test and development … by Flirtey,” Walach told AP.
GeekWire had some more specifics on why this test could be a watershed moment in the history of drone delivery. While western Nevada isn’t a densely populated metropolis by any means, Flirtey’s drone still managed to navigate in and out of buildings, suspended electrical lines and even streetlights — proving that low-altitude flight using autonomous navigation is at least a feasible concept in certain conditions.
While nobody involved in the test would draw a clear line between Flirtey’s tech and the capabilities of Amazon’s equally nascent drone program, one obvious and not inconsequential difference between the two could give Flirtey an advantage in delivering to even more densely populated areas than Reno, Nevada. Amazon’s flying machines hold their cargo within a container beneath the chassis and must make a complete descent to the ground to deposit customers’ orders; Flirtey’s drone dirigibles, however, remain airborne while lowering items from a tensile rope. Depending on the size of packages being delivered, Flirtey may have a leg-up on Amazon here. It might be able to lower orders through tighter spaces that Amazon’s drones can’t easily find an open path through.
And if there’s no infrastructure to worry about, Sweeney told Fortune that there’s still the human element to consider. Whether it’s from curiosity or directed malice, humans that find drones suddenly within arm’s reach may find it difficult to resist tampering with machines that are better left alone.
“We think the safest way to deliver packages is for the drone to remain at a distance and lower it into the customer’s hand,” Sweeney said.
For now, the approach seems to be working for Sweeney. There is something to be said for the power of focus in the race for drone delivery, though. While Amazon has a mountain of resources to Flirtey’s relative molehill, those energies are split across multiple projects on multiple burners.
At the moment, Flirtey is strictly focused on aerial deliveries. When Amazon’s Eye of Sauron turns on the startup, though, will it be able to keep its dreams and drones airborne?