Drone delivery is coming to the small suburb of Holly Springs, North Carolina later this year, said tech startup Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash.
The Israel-based drone delivery company is perhaps most well-known for its drone delivery operations in Reykjavik, Iceland. The company has already made deliveries in the U.S. in the past — primarily on a golf course in North Dakota — but Bash says the North Carolina drone flights will be on a much wider scale.
The startup Flytrex is one of the companies partnering in the Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, which selected 10 state, local and tribal governments to test drone flights that are currently not legal without waivers in the U.S. Each of those governments is then partnering with private businesses to conduct various types of drone operations and share their data and learnings with the FAA.
Flytrex is working with the North Carolina Department of Transporation to offer on-demand food delivery services from restaurants to homes in nearby suburban areas. Flytrex isn’t the only delivery company working in the program. Matternet and Zipline, two separate companies that conduct deliveries primarily for medical-related purposes, are also working with North Carolina. Other companies participating in North Carolina’s drone test program include Apple, which is using aerial data for Apple maps; Fortem Technologies, which is testing radar on drones, and PrecisionHawk and AirMap, which are studying drone traffic management (often referred to as UTM).
A history of the drone delivery startup Flytrex
Flytrex first made a major splash in the media in the summer of 2017 for its drones flying in Grafarvogur, a suburb of Reykjavik, Iceland. The drones delivered packages from e-commerce site AHA (which sells everything from consumer products to groceries and even hot food) to deliver its products to customers in Iceland, via drone of course. But they just flew one route — from the AHA headquarters, across a large bay to a designated landing point staffed by an AHA courier. That courier would remove the package from the drone after it landing, and bring the drone to the customer’s house, filling in the “last mile.”
The flight itself was only about two miles, but since the drone flew over a waterway, the journey was only short as the crow flies. In traffic, it could take about 25 minutes. A drone could do it in four.
How Flytrex’s technology has evolved over time
Flytrex has since improved its technology over the past couple years. Among the biggest changes: a wire to release the packages, and more landing spots.
Flytrex has eliminated the need for drones to land, and in recent months Flytrex’s CEO Yariv Bash has criticized competitors (such as Uber), who still rely on drones to land for package delivery. Bash cited issues such as kids and pets getting in the way of the drone, causing unnecessary problems as it lands.
Flytrex’s new model involves a wire release technology, and Flytrex now focuses on delivering food. 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 CEO Yariv Bash said.
Flytrex has also added more landing locations around the city. Now, anyone can download Flytrex’s app and order something to be delivered by the drone. They select from a handful of landing spots and head there, where they can pick up their own package, as the drone never lands, but instead slowly drops the package via the wire.
Bash said one of the most popular locations is located just outside of the Reykjavík Park and Zoo. He said he suspects it is because the area is so central.
And while Iceland has generally been flexible to work with involving drones, there’s one standout place in particular that drones can’t fly over: the Zoo.
“That’s actually one of the places we are not allowed to fly above, so we have to fly around it to make deliveries to that location, ” Bash said. “It’s for the safety of the animals, and also the noise.”
Why Flytrex is delivering food
The idea of drones delivering tacos has become something of a punchline in the media. Other companies, like Zipline and Matternet, have called for drone delivery to focus on items where there’s a “pressing need” like medical devices.
But Flytrex is standing by food deliveries via drone, and Bash says it’s the lowest hanging fruit.
“Restaurants know how to work to make food deliveries quickly,” he said.
And customers typically have a greater sense of urgency when it comes to food delivery, vs. say, a new pair of shoes.
“If you’re ordering food, you’re already hungry,” he said. “If a drone can deliver it 20 minutes faster than what a car can do, that makes a difference.”
And the most popular item to have delivered? Sushi. He also says that’s not surprising, since Iceland has so much fresh fish.
The future of Flytrex
That money is intended to fund scaling up the company’s operations, including Flytrex’s future plans for flying to people’s backyards, rather than pre-planned pickup spots around the city.
“We’re lazy as a society,” Bash said. “If you can choose between going to your backyard or someplace more central to pickup your food, then obviously the backyard is a lot faster. It’s just a better user experience.”
Bash said they are already delivering to some backyards in Iceland, but they hope to expand that program. Before approving people’s backyards to deliver in, Flytrex had to conduct an assessment to determine if their backyard was suitable. It had to meet criteria such as being within three miles of the launch site, and it needed to have an open area to land (ie. not too many trees). At one point, Iceland’s government had a rule that all residents within 50 meters of the backyard in question had to sign-off to approve of their neighbor’s anticipated deliveries, but that requirement was recently waived, he said.
When Flytrex heads to North Carolina later this year, they’ll start with one takeoff point. Flytrex currently does not yet have FAA authorization to fly drones beyond visual line of sight, which could severely limit the types of deliveries the company can make (Bash said they are working on getting waivers). But Bash is confident in the program.
“In North Carolina, we’ll be able to transition to more complicated operations because it’s part of the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program,” he said. “The FAA is trying to create a new regulatory framework. It’s a mature, forward-thinking approach.”
Aside from Flytrex, it’s been a banner year for drone delivery in the U.S. In April 2019, the FAA awarded the first air carrier certification to Wing Aviation, allowing Wing (the drone delivery arm affiliated with Google) to begin commercial package delivery in Blacksburg, VA. Amazon also delivered a new drone design in June as part of a highly publicized event, and said it expected to make customer deliveries this year as well.