Right next to a shopping center on a small plot of grass, a team is loading up food orders and delivering them right into people’s backyards.
No cars, just air.
“We deliver coffee. Not a drop is spilled. We deliver eggs. They all get there perfectly,” Ben Thein, the Chief Operating Officer of Flytrex, said.
It starts with an order coming through on the Flytrex app, then someone from the team at Flytrex picks up the food.
“We have a team of runners that go to that restaurant or retail, pick it up, and bring it to the delivery station that is conveniently located adjacent to the shopping center where all of those partners are," Thein explained. "We load it into the drone."
And off the autonomous, camera-less drone goes.
“The drone flies autonomously, but somebody has to monitor that, so they press a button, and the drone knows where to fly,” Thein said. “Within 2, 3, 4 minutes, depending on the distance, the package is flown to the person’s backyard.” Or to a public space. The drone never lands, and the package is lowered to the ground instead.
On the other end of the delivery, a visual observer stands by and waits to watch the drone deliver the items, a current rule by the Federal Aviation Administration that requires eyes to be on the drone at all times.
The team is working on getting eliminated from the workflow process moving forward.
Whether or not an idea like this can be scaled depends on several factors.
“For something like drone delivery to be successful, you need three things," Rich Thurau, a professor of unmanned aircraft systems at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said. "You need technology, you need public approval, and then you need some policy and regulation to support that type of operation.”
Thurau has worked in the commercial drone industry since 2015.
“The regulatory hurdles with the FAA are maintaining visual line of sight with the aircraft, and I think that's the big hold up,” he said.
Having a visual observer is still a must. Thurau said popularity would grow as people are more comfortable with drones, and this requirement may be reconsidered.
“The FAA has to really balance safety with moving the economy forward and how to integrate these things into the national airspace,” Thurau said. “Whatever rolls out in the next few years is going to be done safely and effectively.”
Flytrex will be there when it all happens. Right now, they have three stations spread out in the suburbs of North Carolina.
“We went from serving 10 households to serving 10,000 households in less than a year,” Thein said.
Flytrex currently does not charge a delivery fee for customers, just a flat rate fee to restaurants that use them for delivery.
“We created a win-win situation. It’s a win for the customer, and it's also a win for the retail partners,” he said.
As drone regulations and technology come to a head, you could see more drone delivery pads in your local shopping center within the next few years.
“We do it much faster than any alternative. Just think about it," Thein said. "The drone flies at about 34,35 miles per hour, straight line, no traffic. It gets to the person's house in 2, 3, 4 miles. A car cannot beat that."