Uber Elevate has big plans to use drones to deliver Big Macs this summer, but Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash says he doesn’t think it will work.
According to a piece published earlier this month in Bloomberg, the tech giant, which operates the ride-sharing service as well as a food delivery arm, Uber Eats. is working closely with McDonald’s to delivery food via drone as early as this summer. The program will launch in San Diego and potential expanding from there. Rather than dropping the food, the drones will fly to designated landing zones, upon which couriers will collect the deliveries and bring them to customers.
Uber says a delivery spanning 1.5 miles via drone will take an estimated 7 minutes (for comparison, the same delivery via ground transportation would take about 21 minutes), and the cost will be similar to what customers currently pay for traditional Uber Eats deliveries, which can range up to $8.50.
But Bash is skeptical the program will work. And Bash’s skepticism is justified, given his experience. Bash is the CEO of Israel-based drone delivery company Flytrex, which is one of the few companies to be making successful, consistent deliveries to the general public via drone. Flytrex is primarily known for the drone deliveries in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The primary reason for Bash’s doubt about Uber is the means upon which Uber plans to actually get the food from air to ground. Uber has plans for the drones to land at “safe drop-off locations” that will be monitored by a trained Uber employee, Later, they hope to be able to land on parked Uber Eats vehicles near the delivery location, upon which delivery drivers will complete the final delivery leg by hand. Bash says it still opens up the potential for danger.
“When the drone is hovering and landing on the ground, there’s potential for mayhem,” Bash said. “Maybe a dog runs up to the drone, maybe a kid playing in the neighbors backyard disrupts it.”
Instead, Flytrex uses a wire release technology that enables food to be dropped down from right above your home. Flytrex’s drones hover about 100 feet over the desired delivery area, and a wire that can detach from the drone if tugged, lowers the food to the ground.
“Even if you pull the wire, all you get in the end is the wire,” Flytrex said.
Amazon, like Uber, also is currently showing models of drone delivery that involve the drone landing on the ground. Another big player on the drone delivery world, Project Wing, has a rope mechanism system, similar to Flytrex.
“You don’t want the drone to approach the ground,” Bash said. “I think we’ll eventually see companies like Amazon transition to a similar system (of a rope).”
Bash also worries that Uber’s methods might just be another publicity stunt, akin to what many others have done.
“Compromising efficiency for glamorous tech screams useless fad,” according to an email from the public relations firm that represents Flytrex.
It’s unclear still what types of customers will be able to participate in Uber’s delivery trials. Other major companies have also carried out big delivery trials (often with major fast food partners too), but the customers have been from a curated list of people. Project Wing, the drone delivery arm associated with Google, delivered Chipotle burritos, but the drones never flew beyond line of sight (just up a hill) and the customers were a pre-selected group of people associated with Virginia Tech. Delivery startup Flirtey has also touted a series of media-friendly delivery “firsts” including the first-ship-to-shore drone delivery, the first FAA-approved drone delivery to a customer’s home, the first urban drone delivery, but must of those were one-off flights to predetermined customers too.
“A lot of times there’s a one-off, where the companies call the reporters, do one flight, and then scale back,” Bash said. “I want to be able to tell you to come whenever you want. Just download the app. Come over and order something.”
Bash said that as long as you have a smartphone and are in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík, you can participate in their delivery trials. Download the app and place and order, and the drone will come to one of a handful of locations in the city, where their wire mechanism will lower down your food. Each dropoff zone is manned by a Flytrex employee.
Uber’s operations will take off first in San Diego in part because the city was selected in 2018 as one of the 10 commercial drone test sites as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s pilot program, which pairs up private companies with local governments (Flytrex is also participating in that program). Uber is a partner with the City of San Diego in that program.