In 2013, when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos talked about drone delivery, some people laughed. They never thought “little toy airplanes” could be trusted to deliver packages.
The future is now. Walmart, Amazon and other major retailers are actively testing drone delivery, and a California-based QSR recently completed a pilot project for drone food delivery with Israeli startup Flytrex.
Flytrex is one of the leaders in the drone delivery business, but it did not start out as a delivery company. Flytrex was established nearly a decade ago as a way for drones to be connected to the cloud. Flytrex co-founder and CEO Yariv Bash said that over time, it became apparent that delivery was the future of the drone industry, especially for the last mile. Drones are inexpensive to operate and more efficient than a last-mile delivery vehicle.
Flytrex has developed a drone with limited range, only a couple of miles. The machine is perfect for carrying small packages from a restaurant or store to a person’s back yard.
“We can fly up to three miles away, roughly five kilometers, in three to five minutes,” Bash “That’s so much faster than any alternative.”
The drones are fully autonomous, using artificial intelligence and GIS maps to move from one location to the next. Once arriving above a person’s back yard, the drone hovers and lowers the package on a wire, gently setting it down on the ground. The aircraft does not have to find a landing spot and can quickly return to the original location.
“One of the reasons we stay up in the air is because it’s a lot quieter and a lot faster to just deliver from the air,” Bash said. “We’ve done a lot of deliveries into people’s back yards, and so far, we haven’t had a single complaint.”
People love seeing the drone do the delivery, he said. Some customers have been known to take selfies with the package being lowered into the back yard in the background.
Testing in California
El Pollo Loco is an independent QSR chain with over 500 locations across the country. The company has offered delivery since 2019 through DoorDash, Uber Eats, Postmates and Grubhub, and is always trying to innovate. It decided to experiment with drones.
The company researched drone delivery companies and settled on Flytrex. Flytrex started doing drone deliveries in Iceland over three years ago and was given FAA approval to test deliveries in North Carolina in May of 2021. Flytrex met the criteria for what the company was seeking in a drone delivery company.
“We chose to partner with Flytrex because their drones are fast, safe and completely autonomous,” El Pollo Loco Vice President of Digital Andy Rebhun said. “There are no remote controls – the operator only has to install the package, press a button and oversee the flight. Flytrex has said that in the future, a single operator will be able to oversee up to 20 flights at the same time.”
El Pollo Loco tested drone delivery at a location in Corona, Calif., and Rebhun said the company was encouraged by the results. He expects El Pollo Loco will have 10 locations testing drone delivery by the end of the year.
“El Pollo Loco is constantly looking for new ways to innovate, and the drone delivery launch is one part of our larger initiative to utilize technology to improve the customer experience,” he said.
Bash said the project fits well with the company’s current experience and testing. It has been doing deliveries for Starbucks, McDonald’s and other restaurants in North Carolina and has had great success. The drones are steady enough and the contents, even the drinks, arrive safely.
“We deliver to more than 2,000 back yards in Fayetteville (N.C.),” Bash said. “We have customers signing up and making orders on a daily basis. People like to try ordering coffee, eggs, ice cream. …” to test the method.
Car delivery is inefficient
Rebhun said El Pollo Loco is researching drone delivery to save costs. Third-party delivery companies charge 15%-30% for delivery, and Rebhun believes drone delivery can reduce the cost of delivery by as much as 30%, making it a profitable part of the operation.
Bash said last-mile delivery in the food industry is wasteful and believes drones can provide delivery at no cost to the customer. Long-haul delivery trucks are filled to capacity and routes are planned out to maximize savings. A food delivery driver, on the other hand, is delivering a small package in a 3,000-pound vehicle – not an efficient way to do delivery, Bash said.
Drones can provide the same service at a fraction of the cost, especially in the suburbs where miles and miles of single-family homes exist. Bash does not expect to see drone delivery in dense metropolitan areas but in regions of the country where the machines can quickly move through the sky at a low altitude.
Flytrex’s focus is on a simple drone with a limited range. His company has not designed a drone that will fly 50 miles and deliver medical supplies in rural areas; other companies are doing that.
“It’s finding the sweet spot for how much demand or how many customers have been served versus the cost of the production and maintenance and operations,” Bash said. “So you don’t want a drone that’s too sophisticated and can fly thousands of kilometers away. Because then the price of that would be higher and it won’t be worth it. “
He believes it is only a matter of time before most food deliveries in suburban areas of the United States are done by drone. But Bash knows that will not happen overnight. The industry is highly regulated by the FAA, and Flytrex and other companies must work through the regulatory process.
“I think we’re going to start seeing federal-level approvals in the next six to 12 months,” Bash said. “I think once it starts going, it’s going to spread faster than those mobility devices in urban areas that you can hire today. It really is just more affordable, and the quality is better. There’s really no point in using humans for that task. An individual delivery person is not really maximized for efficiency. “