The rise of e-commerce and the evolution of consumer expectations has made the last-mile delivery segment a hotbed of innovation, with technology startups envisioning multiple modes of mobility to shorten delivery schedules and maximize delivery efficiency.
The drone delivery concept is gaining steam, with companies in the space approaching last-mile delivery in two distinctly different ways – bulk transport of large payloads versus on-demand small payload deliveries – with each conducive to working in tailored markets.
Bulk transport of large payloads is especially useful in remote hinterlands and hard-to-access locations, where products could be carried en masse in a single trip. On-demand small payload delivery systems are well-suited to urban spaces, where e-commerce-related deliveries fill a considerable chunk of the delivery pipeline.
“More than 90% of Amazon’s packages are three kilograms (~6.6 pounds) or less, and so in terms of a payload, it is something drones can carry even today,” said Yariv Bash, the CEO and co-founder of Flytrex, an Israeli unmanned small payload drone delivery startup. “And when you’re talking of on-demand delivery, you are typically going to deliver from a place that’s a few miles away from your house – making sure the delivery is super-fast and efficient.”
The idea is to utilize the low payload drones in an urban setting where there are retail stores like Walmart, Costco or Target around town, ensuring that the drones do not need to fly long distances to get people their orders. Flytrex believes that aside from reducing the need to build drones with a massive stack of batteries for flying 100 miles, smaller drones can help support “micro-communities” as orders get fulfilled in a more localized fashion.
“At Flytrex, we focus on business-to-consumer (B2C) deliveries, which means that this is a high bandwidth system with high utilization that enables every consumer to get anything he wants as soon as he orders it online,” said Bash. “We like to call that the future of instant gratification – the ability to get almost any product the minute you order.”
Bash explained that the market for on-demand drone delivery is still in its nascent stages. “Most of the drone companies are focused on point-to-point deliveries, which means they will be flying between two different factories or delivering medical supplies between different hospitals or clinics,” he said. “But our system is mostly focused on delivering products straight to the consumers’ backyard, which is something not a lot of companies are doing.”
Flytrex has been running pilot tests in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, where the company is testing beyond visual line of sight drones by flying them to a dozen public locations and the backyards of homes. In August, Flytrex received first-of-its-kind approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin food deliveries by drones across Holly Springs, North Carolina.
To expand its geographic footprint, Flytrex is seeking to tie up with local companies in the markets it ventures into, like with e-commerce retailer Aha in Iceland and aviation company Causey Aviation in North Carolina.
Testing the drones in Iceland has helped the company gain insight into drone flight across varied weather conditions. “Currently, drones cannot fly in the rain and can only sustain light to medium winds. But technology is advancing really fast, and so the next drone we will be using will be able to fly in very heavy rain and strong winds. I believe that in a few years, we will see drones flying in weather where humans would rather stay indoors than do deliveries on their own,” said Bash.