Intelligence of Things

Food In Flight: Delivering Mobile Orders By Drone

While players like Uber Eats and Grubhub seek to optimize delivery by car, tech providers look to the skies to capture their share of the $13 billion food delivery business. In this month’s Intelligence of Things Tracker, PYMNTS caught up with Flytrex and the North Carolina Department of Transportation on their initiative to pilot commercial drone delivery in Holly Springs, NC, and how test results could impact food delivery nationwide.

Food delivery is a $13 billion business in the U.S., one seeing growing interest from various players, ranging from delivery service companies like Deliveroo to ride-hailing giants like Uber. But while innovation is largely focused on making ordering and paying seamless, delivery times remain high, leaving customers frustrated and resulting in restaurants missing out on opportunities to fill more orders.

That’s a problem that drone delivery company Flytrex is aiming to solve in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The pair is slated to test commercial deliveries using unmanned aerial vehicles in Holly Springs, NC. And while the tests may only be taking place in Holly Springs, their results could impact restaurants and businesses around the country.

Basil Yap, head of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for the NCDOT, and James Pearce, the Department’s public relations officer, told PYMNTS that the NCDOT has seen proof-of-concept demonstrations for the delivery potential of drones before, but this program will run for three years and require consistent, reliable service something they have yet to see in the field.

When all is said and done, the results will help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop new rules around low-altitude UAS.

“The data we’re providing [the FAA will] allow what we’re doing in North Carolina to be possible throughout [the] whole country,” Yap said. “We’re at the leading edge.”

More Customers Served Faster

Under the drone delivery model, customers order food through a restaurant’s app and runners take the meal to a central drone launch location. From there, the drone will fly to the customer’s home, and can be tracked via an app. Flytrex’s drones can carry a six-pound package for three miles and arrive in five to 10 minutes, Yariv Bash, CEO of Flytrex, told PYMNTS.

Once the drone has arrived, the customer will receive a notification and, using a feature integrated with the restaurant’s app or a link provided by Flytrex, direct the drone to lower the package via a wire. An operator can control up to five drones at a time using a control center dashboard, which means managing more trips with less effort and faster transport for restaurants.

“A human courier can make roughly two and a half deliveries per hour, and getting your sushi or hamburger usually takes an hour, if not more,” Bash said. “A drone can make five deliveries per hour and bring you your food within five to 10 minutes from the moment it is ready.”

The service doesn’t just ease operational burdens — it brings benefits to customers, too. It can provide food to customers who have trouble driving due to age or mobility issues, as well as to those who may live in an area with limited transportation access or that is outside of a traditional service area.

Beyond Food

Holly Springs may be focused on food, but the potentials of drone delivery don’t end there. The speed and convenience that makes the service appealing could make it useful for any “high-value, small items, that need to be moved quickly and immediately,” Yap said.

A separate pilot program in North Carolina is exploring drone delivery for medical materials. Blood and high-cost pharmaceuticals are stored at a central hospital, and drones run the materials on demand to rural clinics as needs arise. Drones could also be used to enable wider participation in clinical trials by transporting medicine to participants who would not be able to travel to clinics. Additionally, drones can quickly transport samples — such as drawn blood — to a lab, enabling faster results.

“[Lab tests that] could take anywhere between three to four hours, or even days, because of the schedule of the courier picking it up, now could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple hours,” Yap said. “The doctor gets [a result] quicker and can make better decisions.”

Bash, meanwhile, predicted that drone delivery technology could be applied to deliver a wide range of consumer goods to homes within 15 minutes.

“Next-day delivery will be obsolete,” he said.

Ensuring Safety

Of course, no drone delivery program will get off the ground if there aren’t safety assurances. For Yap, that means ensuring secure communication between each drone and its operator, with extra attention paid to the encryption and type of spectrum used. Operators must have redundant methods for determining a drone’s location to ensure it is where its technology claims.

Flytrex drones are equipped with redundant systems that ensure they continue to operate as intended, should something fail. This includes three GPS receivers, as well as more batteries and motors than necessary — if one fails, the drone will still be able to return to the launch location. Other safety measures include routing drone paths so they avoid flying over people, and the exclusion of cameras due to privacy concerns. Yap also suggested other restrictions, such as preventing drones from flying over schools, stadiums and other populated areas.

Though the pilot program is still readying for take-off, the question of commercial drone deliveries seems to be more a matter of “when” than “if.” Officials and businesses alike are pointing to different applications, ranging from getting meals to hungry hands to speeding medicines to rural clinics. As officials continue to gather data, and adjust policies and regulations, transporting a pie through the sky may not seem so pie-in-the-sky.

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