Why drone startup Flytrex believes the future of food delivery is backyard sky drops — and is quietly trying to prove it by delivering Starbucks lattes
- Flytrex’s drones deliver Walmart groceries as part of a FAA drone pilot program in North Carolina.
- The Tel Aviv startup recently added backyard drone drops of Starbucks drinks and baked goods.
- Flytrex’s CEO says drone deliveries will be cheaper for restaurants compared to third-party fees.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Food delivery by drones in the US is about to see a major breakthrough in 2021 after months of testing under the guidance of federal regulators.
Ten public and privately held companies including Amazon and Flytrex recently cleared a major “airworthiness” hurdle under the Federal Aviation Administration’s ongoing pilot drone program. Next is certification. While Amazon’s strategy revolves around package delivery, Flytrex is focused on food delivery and is taking dead aim at suburban backyards.
Over the past two years, the Tel Aviv-based logistics company has been using its drones to deliver everything from hot dogs to ice cream in test markets across the US.
Flytrex, which has certified drone routes in Iceland, previously delivered food and beverages at a golf course in North Dakota. But its biggest FAA experiment started in late 2020 when it took to the skies carrying trash bags from a Walmart store in North Carolina.
Drops are made to houses about a half mile from the mega-retailer. The North Carolina drone trials will be used by the FAA to create final guidelines for safely integrating drones into the national airspace.
While Flytrex began with a Walmart partnership in North Carolina, the startup later expanded the experiment to include on-demand delivery from a local Starbucks near the “Walmart station” in Fayetteville.
“Once we have the food, in five minutes, it’s in your backyard,” Yariv Bash, CEO and co-founder of Flytrex, told Insider.
The “unofficial” Starbucks deliveries, available through Flytrex’s test app, are another way for the company to test its drones’ ability to carry beverages. So far, no spills as the drone is “a lot more stable than a human” carrying a load of drinks in a cardborad cupholder, Bash said.
The company is also testing the delivery of meals from a local Japanese restaurant in the area.
For Walmart, Flytrex offers local residents an assortment of 300 grocery items and household goods – items small enough to fit into the drone. So far, the hottest on-demand items are ice cream, fresh produce, and hand sanitizer.
“We’ve even delivered eggs a few times,” Bash said. “It works nicely.”
Bash said the ride is smooth because his drones are traveling about 30 mph along a straight line with no bumps on the road or traffic lights.
“We don’t have to stop anywhere,” he said.
By clearing the latest FAA hurdle, Flytrex and nine other companies operating unmanned aircraft systems are one step closer to getting federal certification to scale operations. Flytrex has raised $10.5 million, according to Pitchbook. The other companies that have cleared latest hurdles include 3D Robotics, Airobotics, Amazon, Flirtey, Matternet, Percepto, Telegrid, Wingcopter, and Zipline.
Flytrex’s drone can carry up 6.6 pounds of goods, while traveling about 200 feet in the air before landing in a backyard.
“You can’t really hear or see us while we’re cruising. We’re a little speck in the sky,” Bash said.
Flytrex is focused on making on-demand deliveries of restaurant meals, groceries, and consumer goods. Each drone can carry about 10 items and travel a max of about six miles round trip. The goal is to deliver on-demand orders at retail partners within 15 minutes.
“We are not aiming at building a drone that can deliver a month’s worth of groceries,” Bash said. “We’ve basically designed our system to be able to deliver dinner for a family in the suburbs.”
Bash said one person can remotely operate multiple drones at the same time, making for a speedier and more efficient delivery system.
Instead of doing two and a half deliveries per hour by car, Bash said Flytrex’s drones can complete about 10 deliveries in the same time span. Flytrex’s drone operators don’t need special certification to “pilot” drones, either.
“If you have a driver’s license, you’re overqualified to fly my system.” Bash said. “The drone flies autonomously.”
As for scaling up, Bash said once he gets final FAA approval he hopes to have multiple “drone stations” in operation throughout the US by the end of the year.
While ongoing testing in North Carolina requires residents to order Starbucks and Walmart using Flytrex’s app, Bash said he doesn’t want to compete with third-party delivery companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub.
Those are “huge companies” that are “fighting over customers,” he said.
“I don’t want to be the marketplace. I want to be a delivery company,” Bash said.
Eventually, Flytrex will be behind the scenes, powering last-mile delivery for restaurants and retailers whose customers are ordering directly from partners’ websites or apps.
Since using drones involves less labor, he said it will become a much more cost-effective delivery option for restaurants. Third-party delivery operators charge a commission fee that can be as high as 30% per order.
Bash declined to discuss the cost of Flytrex’s drone delivery fees, only stating it will be “so cheap” that merchants will likely absorb the delivery cost so customers get free delivery.
“It’s going to be a lot less than what they pay today,” he said.
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