Delivering the drone revolution
By Cat Hofacker|April 2020
Look! In the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a … drone?” That’s the future envisioned by Matthew Sweeny, founder and CEO of Flirtey. In less than 10 years, the Australian-born businessman has turned his drone startup into an industry pioneer helping to bring about a world in which swarms of small, autonomous aircraft deliver food, medical supplies and other goods to U.S. consumers. Sweeny in 2014 moved the business to Nevada, where Flirtey is among the companies delivering packages under an FAA pilot program. I called Sweeny at his office in Reno to discuss Flirtey’s future.
IN HIS WORDS
From our perspective, Flirtey is the pioneer of the drone delivery industry. I founded Flirtey in 2013; at the time, we were the first drone delivery service in the world. We’re not just building a company, we’re pioneering an industry, and I realized that in order to pioneer this industry, I’d need to move Flirtey to America from Australia so that we could attract investment from the leading investors in the world and so that we could hire the smartest engineers in the world. We went through YCombinator, which is the leading accelerator program for startups in Silicon Valley. We raised investment from a combination of family offices, venture capitalists and strategic investments. And we then set this incredibly ambitious goal to beat Amazon, and Google, to conduct the first-ever FAA-approved drone delivery in history. We teamed with NASA Langley, who flew in medicine on an optionally piloted aircraft, which we then loaded onto our delivery drones and delivered into the hands of doctors at the largest free health care clinic in America.
As revolutionary as automobiles
We’re building a future where drones will routinely deliver AEDs [automated external defibrillators] to people who’ve had cardiac arrests to save lives. When people want food on demand, they can push a button on their phone and have a Flirtey drone deliver it, with a goal of that arriving in less than 10 minutes. We sit today at the inflection point of the commercialization of a revolutionary new technology that is going to transform the way we get our goods and packages; faster, at a lower cost and more efficiently. I think this is just as revolutionary as the invention of the automobile, or just as revolutionary as the first flights that the Wright brothers conducted, because they both pioneered revolutions in logistics. That’s exactly where we’re at today.
The value proposition
We live in a society where people want instant gratification. The internet enabled instant purchasing, but we’re not yet at the point where the logistical infrastructure enables instant delivery and fulfillment. Drone delivery is that next revolution. If you take it back to first principles, the core value proposition of drone delivery is threefold. First is fast delivery. And this is in a world, for example, where many of the largest on-demand food delivery companies average about 60 minutes a delivery. This [drone delivery] is a significant improvement of any other form of technology that exists to enable people to have what they want, when they want it. Then the second core value proposition is that drone delivery is cost-effective. Flirtey already has FAA approval for one of our remote pilots to oversee the flight of up to 10 drones at the same time, and each of our drones can do more than four deliveries per hour. That means as our industry grows, one Flirtey pilot remotely overseeing our autonomous delivery drones can do 40 deliveries per labor hour. It’s revolutionary not only from a speed perspective, but also from a cost perspective. And in addition to that, there’s a really important element of efficiency. We don’t think it makes sense to have a 4,000-pound vehicle deliver a 4-pound package when we have delivery drones that are fit for the purpose, and more efficient. And so if we, for example, think about efficiency from the perspective of lowering emissions, then delivery drones significantly lower emissions in package delivery over trucks, cars or even autonomous electric vehicles that have significant emissions during the battery production process.
The analogy that I would draw is that when the internet came along, it didn’t replace the radio or the television, but it certainly became dominant in capturing market share. I think that’s where we will be in the near future with drone delivery. There will still be packages that get delivered by traditional means, but drone delivery will become a dominant method of delivering and capture enormous market share because it is a faster service that is more cost effective and better for the environment. We’ve built our aircraft, the Flirtey Eagle. We’ve built our takeoff-and-landing platform that enables us to employ a modular and scalable infrastructure, so that ultimately any mall in America that wants drone delivery can have Flirtey drone delivery. And we’ve built the software that enables our drones to fly themselves autonomously. When we look at the numbers, I see a future where three-quarters of packages are delivered by drone routinely; that whilst these other methods of delivery still exist, I think that when we live in a world where you can push a button on your phone and have a drone deliver your package in less than 10 minutes, I think it will become a dominant form of delivery.
We’ve designed our technology, including the Flirtey Eagle, to hover and precisely lower its contents by lowering a tether at a height that is above trees and above power lines while the drone’s suspended in the air. And then once the package is delivered, the drone retracts the tether and then returns back and does an autonomous precision landing on top of the portal so that it can then be reloaded and conduct another delivery. As we looked at ways to deliver packages, we concluded very early on that the safest way is for that drone to be above trees, above power lines, at a distance from any potentially malicious actors, so that it could just precisely lower that package to your front doorstep, your backyard or to the hands of a waiting customer. We’ve also done a lot of work in the safety of the aircraft itself. We hired the head of NASA Langley’s drone program who was in charge of drone flights over people, and in controlled airspace, to lead our engineering program. Part of what he led was the design and development of, for example, a parachute system for safe flight over people. The U.S. Patent Office just granted us a patent that gives us the ability to detect an error and send a trigger to release the parachute but also gives us the ability to have a cutoff circuit that can, for example, apply a brake to the lift mechanism of the drone. It can also be independently powered. We believe it’s going to become an industry standard because anyone that wants to fly delivery drones over heavily, densely populated areas is likely to need an independent safety mechanism that can apply a break in the lift mechanism.
A human in the loop
Our technology already has a very high degree of autonomy to enable one pilot to oversee up to 10 autonomous delivery drones flying and delivering packages at the same time. But as we think about scaling it, we think it will be important for the foreseeable future to have a human in the loop. What we mean by that is our delivery drones have the autonomy to fly themselves, but we have a human in the loop similarly to how you would have an air traffic controller in an FAA tower, where planes are coming in and the pilots are landing them, but you have a human in the loop so that in the unlikely event anything would’ve gone wrong, they can intervene. Our autonomous navigation software enables our pilot to see a live display of all of the delivery drones that they are overseeing while they’re conducting their missions. There is health monitoring in live time, so if anything deviates from the expected operation, then our human pilot can be notified and then make a decision as to whether or not they issue a command to the aircraft, for example, to bring it in to land.
Beyond food delivery
We’re partnered with REMSA [Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority], which is the ambulance service in Reno, and our long-term goal is to be automatically integrated into the 911 network. So if someone has a cardiac arrest, in addition to the local ambulance service sending an ambulance, we can dispatch a Flirtey delivery drone carrying an AED. Nationwide in America today, despite all the money that we spend on health care, 90% of people who have a cardiac arrest in their home do not survive because ambulances can just take too long to arrive. Ambulances can still get stuck in traffic. And so through our work with REMSA we’ve looked at the historical data on cardiac arrest, and we’ve concluded that just one of our drones in Reno with an AED and integrated into the 911 network will save one life every two weeks on average, and that we can increase the survival rate of cardiac arrest from a national average of 10% today up to about 47%. When we then take that nationally, we project that Flirtey drone delivery can save over 150,000 lives a year, just with AED delivery. That’s before we even think about delivery of EpiPen, delivery of Narcan or any of these other very positive impacts that our technology is going to have on society.
Made in the USA
If you look at just the drone market as a whole, we view a very big distinction between the hobbyist world and the commercial world. So in the hobbyist world, you have a Chinese company that makes 80% of all of the drones sold in America, and those drones were previously used by the Army, until they were banned, and now previously used by the Department of the Interior, until they were banned, out of concerns that the data on military operations and American infrastructure could potentially be transmitted overseas. I think it’s really important for the national security of the United States that there is domestic manufacturing of small delivery drones, and Flirtey is on the forefront of that. If we then move from the hobbyist industry to the commercial industry, the major distinction is there are Chinese companies that are just mass producing low-reliability drones that are used for hobbyist purposes. We’ve built a manufacturing base for high-reliability manufacturing with quality assurance procedures to build commercial delivery drones that are closer to aerospace standards than the lack of standards in the hobbyist world. That will not only serve the purpose of drone delivery, but also provide a very important manufacturing base for small drones in America.
Building public trust
It reminds me of when Henry Ford invented the automobile. There were a lot of people in society who were concerned that it might interrupt the horse and cart, and so there were red flag laws that got passed that said not to drive an automobile; you had to have a person walk in front of the automobile carrying a red flag to ensure separation between cars and horses. Naturally, that limited the utility of cars, but eventually it was demonstrated that technology is reliable and that the society not only accepts it but wants it and needs it. Cars led to a revolution in transportation and logistics, just like delivery drones are leading to a revolution in logistics and package delivery. So I think any time you have a revolutionary new technology, there are people who have a tendency to be afraid of the unknown, and as a result I think it’s incumbent on the companies in the industry to really take steps that earn the trust of society. For example, at Flirtey we see ourselves as the independent alternative to some of the larger technology giants, in what we see as the David-versus-Goliath industry. We’re nimble, and also importantly, we’ve got privacy-driven core values. Our focus is delivering packages, whereas some of our larger competitors, they’re focused on just collecting as much data as possible to trade on it. I think by being that independent, safe, privacy-conscious and trusted brand in drone delivery, not only do we help win the support of the community, but we help bring a service to market that’s going to have a tremendously positive impact on society.
Remote ID “very important”
When 80% of the hobbyist drones in America are manufactured by a Chinese company, I think it’s very important for a number of different reasons, including national security, that the operators of those aircraft can be identified. In the commercial drone delivery world that Flirtey pioneered and operates within, then of course our aircraft are going to be identified, and we’re going to be a responsible operator of those aircraft. It is reasonable for hobbyists to also be identified as well. And when we think then about the scalability of our technology, we want to ensure that our commercial operation is unlikely to be impeded by rogue hobbyists so that we can all share the national aspects and operate together in it. I think what is important is that the identification of aircraft can be transmitted securely and reliably, and there are a variety of technical solutions that can enable those objectives.
2020 flight path
Currently at Flirtey, our focus is conducting routine drone delivery demonstrations at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, or TRI Center, which is located in Nevada. And for context, this is the largest industrial center in the United States; it’s home to more than a hundred companies, including Tesla’s Gigafactory, Walmart, Google, Panasonic and Home Depot, and the facilities employ about 25,000 people on site. Right now, we’re conducting routine drone delivery demonstrations that are in preparation for routine food delivery on site. Our goal is to prove the scalability of our technology for drone delivery of food and beverages on an industrial campus, which we view as a stepping stone to other campuses, other industrial campuses, medical research campuses, college campuses, and other-use cases, which are then in and of themselves a stepping stone to our vision of store-to-door delivery. And so we’ve got this kind of huge opportunity to improve the scalability of our technology here in the coming months, with the goal of then scaling that model nationally.