With Amazon reportedly beginning drone delivery in the US “within months”, I spoke to Michael Currie, CEO and Founder of Fling, to find out the situation in Southeast Asia. The region’s densely populated, traffic-filled cities are seeing fierce competition with rival food delivery companies jockeying for market share.
Drone delivery has the potential to totally disrupt the industry. So I asked him about the hurdles in place in terms of noise, public perception and regulations. Not to mention the technical challenges of implementing the technology itself.
Currie seems to be drawn to tough problems. After a stint with a software development consultancy, with clients such as J.P. Morgan and Lehman Brothers in New York, he joined the research group OpenWorm as Executive Director. The project studied the brain of a microscopic roundworm C.Elegans in order to and map its neurological networks with the goal of creating a computational model of all 1000 cells of its nervous system.
Currie had a revelation while stuck in the endless Bangkok traffic. Contemplating the next couple of hours of excruciating crawl, he looked up to see two birds flying free above the noise and pollution. He realized all of the cars, motorbikes, and trucks around him were stuck in two dimensions while these birds had all the space in the world.
“I thought: ‘Why can’t we use all this space above us?’” Currie recalls, “We could solve most of our problems if we look at them in a different way.’”
With Fling, he hopes to revolutionize food delivery and solve other logistical problems using networks of autonomous drones in crowded cities.
With his engaging combination of deep intelligence, expert knowledge, and excitement, Currie reveals his vision for the future of drone delivery and the regulatory hurdles involved, as well as the ingenious ways the company is generating revenue and proving its credentials in the meantime.
What is the regulatory landscape like for drone delivery in Thailand?
Regulators around the world are moving with various degrees of boldness in permitting “advanced” drone missions, wherein drones are flown close to people, within cities, or beyond the line of sight of the pilot. In Thailand, Fling is working closely with regulators to co-develop formal standards for approving advanced drone missions. We have also performed demonstrations and tests of our technology for Thai government agencies.
As the standards being developed by ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] and ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] are adopted by airspace regulators globally, we will see greater alignment and liberalization of drone regulations around the world, which will enable use cases that are currently prohibited.
How comfortable are the public with the idea of drone delivery? Is it something people are talking about?
Many people – call them early adopters – are very excited about drones and love to see them. Children, in particular, literally run towards drones when we fly them, wanting to get close and see more about them. And drone delivery is certainly something people are talking about. Stories about drone delivery, whether about Fling or other leaders such as Google’s sister company Wing, Amazon, or Zipline, appear regularly in the media. However, some people still associate drones with invasion, danger, and a loss of privacy. The word “drone” conjures images of a buzzing, annoying device flown by an unqualified tourist.
It’s the job of the commercial drone industry to break down this stereotype by showcasing the power of drones to improve people’s lives.
Fling is working with the Thai Resuscitation Council and others to showcase the lifesaving potential of drones to deliver defibrillators (AEDs). Fling is also demonstrating the potential of drones to deliver pharmaceutical products and other urgently needed items during disasters. The medical use case is Fling’s foot in the door of public acceptance, so to speak.
In the long term, we’re excited about the potential for drones to cut delivery times in the crowded metropolises of Southeast Asia. I’m confident that people will accept delivery drones as a part of everyday life when they see their food delivery times cut by 5x to 10x over the best ground delivery services.
With cheap labour in Southeast Asia, motorcycle services can offer instant delivery, often for less than a dollar or two. How can drones compete with that?
A human must always sit on a motorcycle. Even in Southeast Asia, that still puts a lower bound on the per-hour variable cost of a motorcycle service. With drone delivery, the only irreducible variable costs are drone and battery depreciation, both of which can be expected to fall over time as technology improves and as scale rises.
Are you planning to use a hub and spoke model or delivering straight to customers?
The advantage of drone delivery is speed. So all our drones deliver the package close to the customer. We launch the drones from a launch site selected to be close to restaurants or a mall. This way we can quickly obtain items and then deliver them directly to the customer.
In the long term, we envision a city-wide network of drones perched on rooftops, charging and then waiting to be allocated for a point-to-point delivery between two points within the city. Deployed at scale, such a system will reduce traffic congestion and noise, and increase safety since fewer vehicles will be on the road. It will also cut local pollution and greatly improve the convenience of small-item delivery.
Is Fling partnering directly with restaurants to deliver their food?
Currently, yes, since the services are so small-scale that it’s natural for our team to control the entire delivery process. In the medium term we see ourselves at the end of the logistics ecosystem, providing only fulfillment services for same-day or instant-delivery e-logistics aggregators.
What kind of food would people want to have delivered by drone?
Of course, meals taste best immediately after they have been prepared. Drones are so fast that it opens possibilities for foods that previously couldn’t be thought of as deliverable, such as dressed salads, or ice cream.
The time for a drone to deliver your meal is not much longer than the time it would take a waiter to bring it to your table from the kitchen in a large restaurant.
Since drone delivery makes the delivery experience itself a special event, drones are a perfect complement to a special event, so delivering champagne, wine, or a birthday cake is also something we see a lot of interest in.
Aren’t drones fundamentally too noisy to be used in dense urban areas?
Anyone who’s stood on a Bangkok street knows how noisy ground traffic is. For city residents, having drones replace some of those ground delivery vehicles will actually lead to a net noise reduction, since drones are only audible during the few seconds when they are coming close to a building to make a delivery. Most of the time they are cruising at about 90 metres, where it would be difficult to hear or see them.
Future cities will be built with drone delivery in mind. For example, elevators will go all the way to the roof to make it easy to collect items delivered up high where the noise isn’t such an issue.
What kind of technology are you using and how far along are you to being able to deliver at scale?
Fling uses standard multi-copter drones and components with millions of hours of cumulative flight time. We customize these drones with an onboard flight computer to provide secure 4G connectivity, and real-time video streaming to the control station. At the control station, AI software is used to identify people and obstacles near the delivery site. Customers make their order with the Fling Drone Delivery app, available for Android and iOS.
Fling’s software automates the routing, planning, fleet management, and order administration tasks, so we’re able to run the service at a ratio of one employee to three drones. With launch site automation we plan to improve this ratio to one employee to ten drones.
In practice, regulators will continue to require a greater staff presence at launch and landing sites, for the short and medium term. This limits the profitability of the system but we accept that it’s a necessary intermediate step to prove the safety of the system as well as to obtain the public’s acceptance of drones flying in the sky near their homes and offices.
How do you envision the future for drone delivery?
Outside of cities, aerial package-delivery drones are already rapidly growing into niche applications like blood and medical deliveries to otherwise inaccessible places such as poor villages in Kenya, islands in Vanuatu, or isolated Canadian native reservations.
In dense urban areas, autonomous aerial package delivery will dominate the instant delivery segment in the next decade. Not all packages can be delivered in a cost-effective manner on drones, but some items consumers want very fast, such as prepared meals, emergency medical supplies, and luxury e-commerce goods.
There’s a huge amount of competition in the meal delivery space in Asia right now with companies like Grab, FoodPanda, LINE MAN, and GoJek jostling for position. Loads of VC money is pouring into old school meal delivery but it’s basically funding a race to the bottom.
The winners will consolidate and find themselves way behind the leaders in drone delivery who have already made the moves in terms of logistics and regulation.
As a freelance B2B copywriter, Sam Sinha helps food tech brands and restaurant software providers attract engage and convert more leads. Obsessed with food and the future, he writes wherever F&B, software and innovation intersect. You can find him at samsinha.com.