“Please put seat backs and tray tables in their upright and locked position. Your monthly subscription box of (fill in the blank) will be descending from the sky momentarily.”
Except with drones, there are no seats or drivers.
Meet the future: drone delivery.
Drones helicoptering down and with gifts is another sort of sci-fi scenario that’s been reified and seems poised to grow into big business over the next few years. Flytrex is a pioneer in the field, having achieved a series of firsts in pursuit of urban package delivery via drone.
The company started delivery by drone in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2017.
“Less than a year after, we realized that home delivery is going to be the killer application for drones,” Bash told Webster.
“We were already certified to fly above Reykjavik… beyond visual line of sight…which [is] still unheard of in most of the rest of the world,” Bash said. “Then the FAA started…a pilot program for advancing the framework of commercial drones. They heard about our prior experience in flying real commercial missions, so we got accepted. I'm guessing part of it is that we were one of the only companies in the world to have actual real-world experience.”
That places Flytrex in rarified company, with other FAA pilot program participants, including Amazon, Uber and UPS. Before the company can scale, however, it must ace an approval process that’s essentially the same as what a Boeing 787 jetliner would need to clear, Bash said.
Strategizing For UAV Commerce
If fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) battling for commercial control of the air sounds too much like a “South Park” episode, consider the venture capital and logistical planning, public and private, being expended on the proposition. And the market potential is promising, with some exceptions.
Flytrex’s U.S. headquarters in North Carolina is well-located for finding and training the personnel needed to remotely guide drones that are not fully autonomous. A part of Bash’s strategy was to partner with a local jet charter company whose pilots can now earn extra money joysticking drones, not unlike the Uber gig worker model.
“They've opened a new company for their unmanned business,” he said. “We supplied the vehicles [which] come with an entire cloud-based system that supports everything from maintenance to the delivery queue to the connections to the restaurants and other third-party food marketplaces. All they have to do is train the local people and operate the vehicles.”
While urban delivery has proven very difficult and somewhat redundant given the food delivery options available in any major city, Bash said Flytrex sees suburban America as its greenfield opportunity.
“Two-thirds of U.S. population lives in private houses, and that's an amazing number,” Bash said, adding that equates to nearly 70 million backyard landing zones. “The user experience for apartment buildings isn't as good. With a private house it's either one hour to the front door, then I have to get dressed and pay someone, [compared to] 15 minutes to your back door without any need to get dressed, or even tip” because it’s a drone. “It's a no-brainer.”
Flying Food And Other UAV Use Cases
Forgotten 1970s rock act The Flying Burrito Brothers foretold the future with stunning accuracy just by naming the band. Add flying chicken wings along with other airborne edibles and you get the picture that’s rapidly forming. Flytrex makes its own deals with restaurants that then uses the company as a delivery platform akin to Grubhub. Except for those hefty fees.
“Our per-delivery [fee] is a lot less than any other on-demand company,” Bash said.
Not only do drones give ailing restaurants a new and less costly delivery option, but they can also dramatically improve delivery order volumes. Noting that human drivers make an average of roughly two deliveries per hour because of the distances, Bash said, “You take the same guy, give him a few days of training, and he's going to be qualified to fly the Flytrex system. Then using a bunch of drones, he'll be able to perform 15 deliveries per hour. Now, it's almost an order of magnitude more deliveries per year.”
Flytrex designed its own mobile-order ahead and food delivery application “from scratch,” and Bash said Flytrex delivers “…more than 200 different items from Walmart. And besides that, we have the entire menus of companies like McDonald's, Chick-fil-A and these companies.”
Still, other applications of drone delivery may very soon involve prescription medicine, large grocery orders, or even one-off convenience buys like a single bottle of wine or lone food item.
This is all bringing the reality of drone traffic nearer as the U.S. government’s unmanned traffic management system (UTM) sets up to monitor droves of drones that Bash envisions.
“As we get more flights, as the FAA feels safer with our system, then we'll of course have more [drones] flying simultaneously,” Bash said. “Part of the program is start by crawling, go to walking, then up and running. We're somewhere between the crawling and the walking.”