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Delivery Drones: Where Are We Now?
The state of drone delivery, top AI researchers in Europe, agtech, artificial general intelligence, jobs, events, and more
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Delivery Drones: Where Are We Now?
For years the tech industry has claimed that drones will be delivering packages any day now. It has been a decade since Jeff Bezos announced Amazon’s drone delivery program on American television. On December 1, 2013, Bezos pledged to fill the skies with a fleet of autonomous delivery drones that could zip parcels up to five pounds to customers’ homes in 30 minutes. He expected drone deliveries to commence in the next five years or so. “I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not!” he said.
Although other companies previously talked about using drones to deliver small packages, Amazon brought mainstream attention to the idea. Just a few days later, it was reported that UPS and DHL were investigating their own drone delivery services.
In early 2013, DJI launched Phantom, a quadcopter that promised to “make aerial filming a breeze”. For the first time, drones were no longer just for nerds. Tons of people were getting drones for Christmas, and every few weeks, a new model would come out with new capabilities at a lower price. Using drones to deliver packages seemed like the next step. DJIs were great for toys, and perhaps they could take some nice videos too, but there was no way Amazon would build its new delivery business on top of a hobbyists’ platform.
Amazon created Prime Air to focus on developing all the necessary technology to enable this new delivery method. Overnight, there were many questions: Was it safe to have heavy packages flying around the sky? Would drones contribute to noise pollution and interfere with planes and helicopters? How could Amazon manufacture millions of autonomous drones? Amazon would have to wait until March 2015, when the US Federal Aviation Administration granted the company permission to begin testing a prototype under a waiver to the regulations: Drones flying no higher than 122m, no faster than 161 km/h, and remaining within the pilot’s line of sight.
So Amazon delivered its first Prime Air parcel to a customer in 2016 in Cambridge, England. Since then, the story has mainly been one of technical and regulatory setbacks, ambitious targets missed, at least one fiery crash, and layoffs. Big companies fail to deliver on new technologies all the time, and designing a one-size-fits-all solution to satisfy the scale required for Amazon is incredibly difficult. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see use cases of drone delivery becoming commonplace soon.
Typically, a new technology is oversold in the short term and undersold in the long term until all pieces fall into place. And when it comes to a new means of transport, you really need multiple components to come together, from regulation and the public’s perception to infrastructure and engineering. Now, let’s dig into a number of projects and learn from a founder who has been building industrial-grade drones for over a decade, delivering some of the most robust UAVs in the market.
“Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving goods – including options that are cheaper, faster, less wasteful and more environmentally sensitive than what’s possible today”. That’s how Google kicked off its delivery drone program, Project Wing, in 2014. Wing, now an independent Alphabet company, achieved early traction primarily in Australia while testing its services in the US since 2021. Designed with 12 rotors allowing for redundant systems and the ability to turn on additional rotors should any fail, Wing has completed 300,000 deliveries of goods up to 1.2 kg serving restaurants, health care providers, grocery and e-commerce stores. This is done via a retractable line that the drone lowers with the contents secured in a small box. Recently, the company unveiled its Wing Delivery Network — a network of “pads” where drones takeoff, land, and recharge between trips, and “autoloaders”, which enable its partners to preload packages for automatic pickup. Could Wing make drone deployments as efficient as Uber dispatches drivers?
Another company named Matternet, founded by Andreas Raptopoulos in 2011, sets up dedicated takeoff and landing stations everywhere they operate. This is a bit of a restriction on the service, as drones can only deliver between specific locations. However, Matternet focuses mainly on medical deliveries weighing up to 2 kg, having enabled over 20,000 flights in Switzerland, Germany, UAE and the USA, so they only need to set up one station at each hospital and medical centre to enable their service. If Matternet can solve point-to-point drone delivery between hospitals, they could potentially expand from there, and medical deliveries are a fascinating use case for drones.
People tend to think of America or Europe as the best places to launch new technologies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Zipline got its start by delivering blood donations in Rwanda. Demand for drone delivery in Africa is incredibly high since moving blood from central donation centres to rural hospitals is an arduous journey with normal means. Zipline’s drones were also used in Ghana to deliver COVID-19 vaccines. After making some 500,000 autonomous deliveries with its original plane-shaped drone that’s catapulted into flight and then drops packages up to 3.5 kg via parachute, last month, Zipline revealed its new next-generation delivery drone. Their latest design features an autonomous droid lowered by a tether to gently deliver a package precisely where it’s expected.
Sure, these are pretty far from the original vision of ubiquitous drone delivery that Bezos promised in 2013, and we might be better off adjusting our expectations for what victory means for this industry, at least for the foreseeable future. But any technology that improves the speed and efficiency of deliveries, especially in critical situations, is a win, in my book. Every drop in transportation costs has revolutionized the world, whether within cities, among countries, or even beyond Earth (hello SpaceX), and drones are here to stay.
Bringing the most robust form factor in aviation to drones
An example of drones making an impact by carrying critical cargo is Velos Rotors. Helicopter drones designed and assembled in Xylokastro, a seaside town in the north of Peloponnese in Greece, have transferred organ transplants in Baltimore, US, expensive medicine and blood samples to remote Greek islands, supplies in oil platforms in Malaysia, among others.
Aris Kolokythas, a long-time aviation enthusiast who started building small flying machines controlled remotely using radio transmitters when he was a kid, teamed up with his childhood friend and serial entrepreneur Tasso Argyros (Aster Data acq. by Teradata for $325m in 2011, ActionIQ backed by Sequoia, a16z) to bring a reliable and robust drone to market. Velos was born.
Velos drones are full-electric, sub-25 kg drone helicopters that can consistently carry a 5 kg payload for 60 minutes with an 80 km/h cruise speed under pretty much any weather conditions. Its patented twin-engine design offers redundancy, reduces noise and vibration, and enhances efficiency and performance.
I sat down with Aris and asked him why they diverted from the typical multicopter design and decided to build a helicopter. “The story goes back to the late 2000s / early 2010s. Back then, we only had helicopters and aeroplanes; robust, reliable flying machines, but building and flying them required significant skills. However, with the advances in lithium batteries, people shifted their attention to quadcopters, which were much simpler to create (four motors and propellers together with a battery). Because of that, the market exploded, initially among hobbyists and then for aerial filming and other use cases, including cargo.
But, their capabilities compared to helicopters are limited in terms of payload, range, and energy efficiency. They’re overly noisy, cannot fly even under mild weather conditions, and crash too often. Multicopters are inferior flying machines, and such shortcomings largely stem from their shape and structure. Physics dictates that the thrust an aerial vehicle produces is proportional to the surface of its propeller. Multicopters use many small propellers that cover a small surface, while requiring much energy to rotate. We decided to build helicopters and design all components ourselves to ensure we manufacture the most robust, reliable UAVs in our category.”
Being able to carry large payloads reliably, the commercial and government applications that Velos unlocks outside delivery are numerous, from inspections to Search and Rescue and LiDAR surveying to professional video productions and more. Organisations such as the Coast Guard of South Korea use Velos to search and aid people in distress or imminent danger and monitor the seas from above.
“We expect an explosion in demand for drones supporting commercial and government use cases in the next few years due to the easing of regulation and developing rules for flying drones beyond operators’ line of sight. Particularly for helicopters, the market will surge as people realise multicopters are unsuitable for demanding applications. In fact, many of our current customers are unhappy prior users of multicopters, who realised their limitations. We’re in discussions with several leading companies in the logistics industry, as everyone is ramping up their efforts to have a drone delivery solution ready when regulations and safety concerns in the US and Europe ease up. Also, we’re soon getting our FAA certification.”
Recently, Michael Seal, a US Navy veteran with a long track record in the industry, joined the team. Earlier this month, at Marathon, we announced our $2m Seed investment in Velos to support the company towards further advancing its platform for cutting-edge use cases and scaling its manufacturing capacity. Velos Rotors is headquartered in the Eastern US, maintaining its R&D and manufacturing facilities in Greece.
If you’re into aviation, look at their open roles, as they’re hiring for engineering and business development positions.
Looking for your next career move? Check out job openings from Greek startups hiring in Greece, abroad, and remotely.
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Greece ranks #3 in the list of European countries (excl. UK) where the top AI researchers received their undergraduate degrees. Data from authors of papers selected at one of the most prestigious ML conferences (NeurIPS).
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“Greeking out in San Francisco” by Endeavor Greece on May 3
“Angular Athens 17th Meetup” by Angular Athens on May 3
“London Greeks in Tech” by Marathon Venture Capital on May 18
“CityJS Athens 2023” on May 29-31
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