Israeli Drone Firm Taking Part in North Carolina Pilot Program

Flytrex, an Israeli software firm that has developed a control system for automatic flight of multiple drones, may soon be helping deliver food to residents of a North Carolina town as one of 10 test projects sanctioned in May by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Beyond that, Flytrex is working to establish itself as a leader in drone delivery systems worldwide, touting it as safer than trucks on roads.

The town of Holly Springs, NC will decide on Aug. 7 whether to proceed with the test, which will be done in conjunction with the state’s Department of Transportation. It will involve drone deliveries from local restaurants to consumer’s doors.

“We were approached three months ago for a pilot program in the states, and we’re scheduled to start food deliveries in North Carolina later this year,” said Flytrex CEO and cofounder Yariv Bash. “We’re in discussions with a few large restaurant chains and food aggregators in connection with the project.”

Flytrex was the first company to provide a commercial drone delivery service, flying in food and other goods for Icelandic ecommerce firm Aha to residents of Reykjavik beginning last August. The drones themselves are built by Chinese firm DJI, one of the world’s major suppliers of the craft.

Update: as of Aug. 7, Flytrex has expanded its Reykjavik program, with 13 drone routes covering half the city with deliveries from Aha, including for the first time in-air “wire drops” directly to shoppers’ homes.

It takes a Flytrex-navigated DJI drone about four and a half minutes to travel two miles from the AHA warehouse to a designated spot in Reykjavik, with a human driver completing the delivery. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. The Holly Springs project, however, will involve drone flights directly to residences, and the same is planned in Iceland via a system upgrade in the works.

Not surprisingly, Bash sees a day soon when drone delivery will be as common as last-mile couriers are today. As soon as consumers get a taste of ultra-fast fulfillment through the air it will help clear away various regulatory hurdles, he predicted. Laggards in this regard, Bash said, will be like companies today who don’t sell goods online.

The technology does appear to be on a faster track than in recent years, given the green light for the 10 pilot programs and the backing of Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Interestingly, Amazon’s application to the FAA was not chosen for a pilot test, even though it has been very active in drone development via Prime Air; Google parent Alphabet was.

“If a retail store today doesn’t have a web presence or an option for online ordering, it means they’re already dead or on the way out,” Bash said. “Once shoppers experience drone delivery, it will change the way consumer goods are fulfilled. If you log onto a site and you can get wine or a new iPhone in 20 minutes for the same price, why would you go to another website where it takes a day or two for the same product to arrive on your doorstep?”

The related trends of forward placement of goods for faster delivery to consumers in major markets, as well as shipping from stores, bode well for the future of drone delivery, Bash said, as it’s a prerequisite for making the model work. But logistically suburbs not cities are the ideal target for drones.

“If a store (or a warehouse) is in a city, you can have an order arrive quickly to your backyard,” he said. “It’s all about real estate again, as it was with retail space and malls. You’re seeing Amazon and others doing it, opening smaller warehouses around metro areas, buying up those assets. Whole Foods, for example, gives them a launch pad in every major city in the U.S.”

Bash said Flytrex is concentrating its efforts for now on creating aerial routes that minimize the number of houses and populated areas the drones will fly over, even though its system enables navigation around large obstacles. Projects are in the works in other locales, including another pilot in the Ukraine with the state postal service, but others have not been announced publicly.

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