A 50-year-old Triad aviation company, an Israeli start-up and the North Carolina Department of Transportation are preparing to test a program to deliver meals by drone.
Rather than arriving at the front door like an order from TakeOut Central or Uber Eats, freshly prepared food will be lowered via cable from an autonomous unmanned aircraft hovering 70 feet above the customer’s yard.
The first flights will take place later this year in Holly Springs, the small Wake County town 20 miles from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, 74 miles from Greensboro, and 100 miles from Winston-Salem. The Triad company partnering in the venture is Causey Aviation, headquartered in Liberty.
The technology is provided by the 6-year-old Tel Aviv-based startup Flytrex, whose CEO Yariv Bash also co-founded SpaceIL, the Israeli nonprofit attempting to put the first privately-funded spacecraft on the moon. In August of 2017, Flytrex partnered with Aha, Iceland’s largest e-commerce company, to deliver sushi, hamburgers and beer across Elliðavogur Bay, which separates two of Reykjavik’s Northeastern districts. Malek Murison from Internetofbusiness.com reported that Skytrex’s drones cut Aha’s delivery times from a 20-minute drive to a four-minute flight.
(A video of Flytrex and Aha delivering food to a Reykjavik backyard can be seen on the Flytrex website.)
In 2018, Flytrex and Aha expanded to 13 routes in the Icelandic capital, logging over 1,000 flights. Last August, Matt McFarland of CNN reported that the Israeli drones made its first incursion into the US delivering hamburgers to golfers at King’s Walk, an 18-hole course in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A golf course was chosen for the six-week test due to its open space, relatively few people and clear sightlines between the links.
Casually googling “drone” may reveal some confusion between that designator and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). But “drone” is increasingly the common term, as well as the oldest, coined in 1935 for the British DH 82B Queen Bee, a radio-controlled aircraft used for target practice by naval artillery.
For most of the 20th century, aerial drones (technically, “drone” can also mean a remote-controlled submersible or even a land vehicle) were remote-controlled military aircraft powered by internal combustion or jet propulsion engines. But in the 21st century, advances in miniaturization, rotor technology and lithium-polymer batteries, as well as SOC (system-on-a-chip) integrated circuits and single-board computers, popularized the use of the small quadcopters now a common sight in Triad skies.
In June of 2016, the FAA announced regulations for commercially operated Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS). The rules, which don’t apply to private hobbyists, require a licensed remote pilot and restrict the drone to 55 pounds or less (including payload). Under these regulations, the drone must be operated in daylight and in direct line-of-sight and must fly at under 400 feet and less than 100 mph in uncontrolled Class G airspace (that part of airspace over which Air Traffic Control has no authority). Under this regulation, commercial drones cannot fly over anyone not directly participating in the operation or under a covered structure, and can’t be launched from a moving vehicle. All of these rules are subject to waiver by the FAA.
In May of 2018, Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao announced that 10 states had been selected by the USDOT as participants in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, an initiative partnering the FAA with local governments and private sector participants to explore the commercial capabilities of drone delivery.
Along with local governments in Oklahoma, Virginia, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee, North Dakota, Nevada and Alaska, one of the selectees was the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
The USDOT announcement described the purpose of these public-private partnerships in the following passage:
“Over the next two and a half years, the selectees will collect drone data involving night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft. The data collected from these operations will help the USDOT and FAA craft new enabling rules that allow more complex low-altitude operations, identify ways to balance local and national interests related to UAS integration, improve communications with local, state and tribal jurisdictions, address security and privacy risks, and accelerate the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations.”
According to the May 9, 2018, NextGov.com article “10 Drone Programs Get Federal OK to Break the Rules,” the NC pilot program “will include drones flying beyond the line of sight, at night and over people.”
However, according to “Federal Drone Pilot Program Overview” at Hollyspringsnc.us, the Holly Springs program will begin by operating “under existing Federal Aviation Administration restrictions limiting flights to daytime, line-of-sight operations that don’t fly directly over people,” and with only one drone flying at a time. According to that description on the town’s website, the program will start “with takeout delivery from one or more restaurants in Holly Springs Towne Center to a delivery location at Ting Park, across the park road from the tennis courts.”
The program’s FAQ states that, initially, “all flight routes will be within line-of-sight of the remote pilot at the take-off location at Holly Springs Towne Center,” and that the route to the Ting Park delivery location “will not allow drones to fly above houses.”
The FAQ also gives the following answer as to why Holly Springs is interested in the program:
“Drones offer the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, thus mitigating traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Drone delivery replaces a 2-ton vehicle driving on the road with an electric-powered 35-pound vehicle. This pilot program provides the Federal Aviation Administration, N.C. Department of Transportation and Town of Holly Springs an opportunity to assess how drones might play a role in our innovative economy.”
In a phone from Tel Aviv last week, Amit Regev, vice president of product at Flytrex, said that the Holly Springs’ program would apply lessons learned in Iceland.
“When we started testing this almost three years ago, we would take off from the [Reykjavik distribution] center, and then we landed at the site where we were delivering the product, so somebody would go to the drone and take the package, prove that the package was taken, and then it would take off and fly back to the distribution center.”
This, he said, proved impractical.
“We quickly learned that you really don’t want to land in somebody’s back yard!”
So, it was changed to a system where the drone arrived above the delivery point and alerted an app on the customer’s smartphone. “When you acknowledge this on the app, the drone descends to about 70 feet, hovers, and lowers the package on a wire mechanism to your backyard, so the drone never actually lands there.” The cable’s hook automatically releases the package, and the cable is retracted back into the drone, which ascends to cruising altitude and returns to the distribution center. “It never lands anywhere outside the center.”
Regev called this “a really good way to handle the logistics of delivery,” compared to “what you have in the suburbs, where somebody enters a car, which is far heavier than a drone and drives all the way to the destination.” He said, “a 25-pound drone is much less dangerous than a car, as well as much better in terms of the environment because everything is electric.” He expressed confidence that, once users become accustomed to drone delivery, “they will enjoy the experience much better, as it can bring anything in 10 minutes or so to your backyard.”
He said the drones could carry up to 6.6 pounds. “That’s the capability that we have today. I’m guessing that we will be able to carry a bit more down the road.”
He said that cruising altitude would be 230 feet. “The reason is related to noise, mainly. At 230 feet, people on the ground won’t hear a thing. When lowering to 70 feet, you might hear a small noise, but less than from a scooter or a car. And that part usually takes only 20 to 30 seconds.”
He explained that the drones don’t descend to anything less than 70 feet for safety reasons.
“We do carry a parachute system on top of the drone, which would require about 40 feet to deploy. So, if we stay higher, we can react if something happens. We’ve never used it, but this is part of the safety element we’re working on with the FAA.”
Regev said that Flytrex began working with drones six years ago.
“For the first few years, we were actually manufacturing small black boxes designed for consumer drones. The purpose of this specific device was that it was connected to those consumer drones and transmitted telemetry data to our servers over several networks, allowing customers to track and log onto the flights. We basically had a gaming platform for drone enthusiasts from all over the world.”
But then, he said, “we began to notice what people were actually doing with their drones.” And Flytrex began receiving requests from other companies asking if the drones could be used for deliveries.
“About three years after we started, we decided that the big opportunity is here. So, we did a switch and started focusing on the drone delivery side and building the system that can handle the logistics of such a thing and the technology to actually enable that. There’s been huge progress, both in the technology and the way that the market sees that technology.”
He said that his company’s drones have a cruising speed of 33 mph and a maximum round-trip radius of approximately three miles. So, for now, they won’t be delivering fresh seafood from the coast to the Piedmont (the first thing a friend asked about when I told him about this program).
Regev said the current model is to place delivery stations in commercial centers.
“Specifically, in Holly Springs, such a station will be set up in a strip mall operated by [the Greensboro-based property management company] KRG. We then have a runner that simply picks up, either on foot or by bicycle, all orders from the mall’s merchants and brings them to the delivery center, where the package is then delivered directly to the customer’s backyard. Such station will offer deliveries from all approximately 20 restaurants within this shopping center.”
I asked him if the drones would be remote-piloted or fully autonomous.
“The drones are fully automatic. The flight plan is loaded from a center server to the drone, and the system executes the delivery accordingly. In the initial stages, there is a pilot holding a remote control for safety purposes, but no action is actually required from his end. Eventually, the goal is to have one pilot operating multiple drones together without any remote control. All control is done through a terminal on a PC/iPad.”
After speaking with Regev, I reached out to Jeff Causey, director of operations at Causey Aviation, Inc. in Liberty. He was enthusiastic about his company’s partnership with Flytrex and the NCDOT.
“The technology to do this is in most ways fairly mature and ready, at least all the different pieces that are required to bring it together. What’s been sort of lacking is the integration of those pieces, and Flytrex is doing a great job of providing that.”
He also spoke to the regulatory environment. “The regulations that govern the national airspace have never really anticipated this technology as being a possibility. So now the FAA, the North Carolina DOT, and Causey Aviation as the operator are all working together to determine where those gaps are and how best to fill those.”
He said it’s possible that, in the future, the entire regulatory structure may be changed, not just in relation to commercial drones, but to commercial airspace itself.
“I’ve been talking a lot with Basil Yap, the NC DOT representative in charge of this. Whereas right now, the federal government controls all airspace through the FAA, it may be that, at some point in the future, individual states will begin to have some sort of control over the first 300 or 400 feet of some airspace, possibly even establishing virtual roads in the sky.”
Causey envisions the technology being used to deliver more than just meals. “It can deliver prescriptions or groceries or your new cellphone or industrial goods. But meals are a good test because it’s something the drone allows you to deliver very quickly, regardless of traffic conditions or the time of day. You can deliver via drone very precisely and always in the same amount of time, and the food will be very fresh and very hot.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.