A drone that delivers fast food? You can thank Syracuse for that.
By Mark Weiner | firstname.lastname@example.org
A hungry North Carolina resident will make history sometime soon simply by ordering a burger or burrito. A drone, weighing as little as a toddler and using technology first tested in Central New York, will deliver the fast food after flying over a busy highway.
The feat will be the work of a small Israeli startup who, with the help of Syracuse-based test pilots and engineers, beat out some of the world’s best-known tech giants for a head-start in the exploding food delivery business.
Syracuse-based NUAIR confirmed the drone’s backup safety system – a high-tech automatically deploying parachute (DRS M600) – would work under the worst-case scenarios. Even if all motors failed at full speed 230 feet in the air, the free-falling drone’s parachute would deploy, gently lowering it to the ground to avoid a potentially deadly crash into people.
Flytrex, the Israeli startup, says the parachute safety system’s validation helped convince the federal government, for the first time, to allow drones to fly over a highway where motorists travel 55 mph or more. It’s a big deal because the Federal Aviation Administration, for now, bans the operation of most commercial drones over people, homes and roads.
But armed with test results from Central New York, Flytrex asked the FAA for a waiver to fly over a highway in Holly Springs, N.C., as part of a three-year test project. The waiver was granted and will make the fast-growing suburb of Raleigh one of the first places in the United States where food will be delivered by drone.
Flytrex plans to deploy its drones to deliver food on a single route, from a shopping center with 15 restaurants to customers at a nearby public park and sports complex in Holly Springs. Travel time for the third-of-a-mile round trip will be cut from 24 minutes (by car) to less than five minutes (by drone).
“None of it would be possible without work done in Central New York.” – Flytrex
It’s one of the first big success stories for NUAIR, a group of industry and academic partners that operate a 50-mile drone testing corridor between Syracuse and Griffiss International Airport in Rome.
Wes Shover, head of U.S. operations for Flytrex, said the company showed during testing by NUAIR (Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research) this summer that the parachute system complies with new industry standards. NUAIR technicians put the Flytrex drone through a series of 45 different failure tests in a grassy field at Griffiss International Airport. In each case, the parachute safely deployed, gently lowering the drone to the ground.
Shover said the safety tests were one of the most important hurdles Flytrex had to clear before winning the nation’s first waiver to routinely fly drone deliveries over a busy highway, the North Carolina Route 55 Bypass in Holly Springs.
A scrappy startup
The waiver gives Flytrex a step up on some of the biggest names in technology who are in a worldwide race to develop a safe, reliable service for drone package deliveries. Flytrex is competing against companies that include Amazon, Microsoft, Google, UPS and Uber, all of whom have commercial drone testing projects underway in the United States.
There’s a good reason for the heavy competition: The value of the drone logistics and transportation market is expected to reach $11.2 billion by 2022 and $29 billion by 2027, according to analysts at Research and Markets. And there’s a growing market for restaurant food delivery.
Uber says its food delivery business may soon be larger than its ride-hailing service. Uber Eats reported revenue of $1.5 billion in 2018, up 149 percent over the previous year. Investors see potential for drones to capture a big chunk of the food delivery business because drones provide faster and cheaper deliveries. Each drone can replace three to four cars on the road.
Flytrex began demonstrating that value in Iceland in 2017. The company now serves almost half the capital city of Reykjavik with food delivery by drone. The drones cut delivery times by about 30 minutes by flying over a large bay that separates two parts of the city. Flytrex uses it patented wire-drop system to deliver food to customers’ back yards in partnership with Aha, Iceland’s largest food delivery service.
Video: How Flytrex delivers packages with drones in Iceland
How food delivery would work
Flytrex plans to use a drone that weighs about 30 pounds to deliver food in the North Carolina test, about 10 times the weight of a typical hobby drone. The drone, traveling at speeds up to 32 mph and at heights up to 230 feet, will carry food inside a fastened delivery box. Each drone can carry a box that weighs 6.6 pounds, or about six to eight hamburgers.
After reaching its destination, the box will be lowered to the ground by a wire as the drone hovers 80 feet in the air, a move to help reduce the noise from buzzing drone rotors. During the initial testing period, a Flytrex technician will be stationed at the North Carolina delivery site at Ting Park in Holly Springs to unhook the wire from the delivery box.
Flytrex plans to eventually transition to a customer app. The app will allow people to push a button on their phone, unhooking the wire to complete the delivery, Shover said.
The FAA and the North Carolina Department of Transportation agreed to allow the Flytrex delivery tests as part of a broader effort to safely integrate commercial drones into the national airspace. The test project is one of 10 accepted by the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program for drones under a national initiative launched in 2017.
As part of the test, Flytrex won’t be able to fly at night or over a wide area. The drones will always have to be within the line of sight of the operator partnering with Flytrex, Causey Aviation Unmanned Inc.
The FAA has good reason for its safety concerns: In Switzerland, Swiss Post suspended its drone delivery service this year after one crashed in May near a group of kindergarten children. The drone, from California-based Matternet, had been used to ferry lab samples and other healthcare items between hospitals in Switzerland. Investigators looking into the accident found the 22-pound drone’s parachute deployed but didn’t work as designed. A tether broke after becoming caught on a sharp edge of the drone.
Central New York tests
At the New York UAS Test Site in Central New York, technicians spent a week in June putting the drone (a DJI Matrice 600 Pro) and parachute (from Drone Rescue Systems of Austria) through a series of 45 safety tests.
Andy Thurling, a former Air Force test pilot who serves as NUAIR’s chief technology officer, said operators forced the motors to fail under different scenarios to make sure the parachute automatically deployed.
In one series of tests, motors were cut while the drone was in a hovering position, causing it to free fall. The tests were conducted with different weight loads and while operating under manual and automatic settings.
In a different test, the parachute was stretched to its limits. A drone took off carrying a maximum load. After cutting the drone’s power, operators were required to let the drone fall for three seconds before deploying the parachute. The test was repeated five times to see how the fall stressed the parachute’s stitching and connections.
In the toughest test, the drone was flown forward at full speed (32 mph) and the motors were intentionally cut in mid-flight, causing a critical failure that typically makes the drone start to roll. As it tumbles, parachutes can wrap around the drone and fail to deploy.
In each of five tests under that scenario, with different weights, the parachute deployed automatically, bringing the drone to a soft landing. The drone sounded a loud buzzer as it fell to alert people on the ground below.
Flytrex guards its secret sauce
Flytrex, based in Tel Aviv, began in 2013 with about $3 million from investors, according to CEO and co-founder Yariv Bash. The company has about 20 employees, most of them based in Israel.
Bash, an electrical and computer engineer, is an entrepreneur who led the project to send Israel’s first spaceship to the moon this year. The unmanned craft made it to the moon in April. But it wasn’t a total success. The spaceship crash-landed on the surface.
Bash has equally high ambitions for Flytrex. As its drone delivery business took off in Iceland, the company raised $7.5 million this year for the North Carolina tests.
Shover, who heads U.S. operations, said the company prohibits him from discussing the engineering, electronics and software that have given the company an edge over some of its bigger rivals. “They don’t want to say anything specific,” Shover told Syracuse.com | The Post Standard. “Some of it is our secret sauce.”
In public meetings in Holly Springs, residents have mostly welcomed the company after hearing that Flytrex will not equip its delivery drones with cameras that could invade privacy.
Shover said many residents are excited by the prospect of reducing the time it takes to drive (about 24 minutes roundtrip) from the park and sports complex to the restaurants at Holly Springs Towne Center. Drones can make the trip in less than five minutes.
The shopping center has burger, pizza and taco restaurants, as well as a Panera Bread, Starbuck’s, Chili’s and Olive Garden restaurant. “People in general are really excited,” Shover said. “They all ask, ‘Why aren’t you flying now and delivering to my house.’”