An Uber Eats car and drone is on exhibit at the Uber Elevate Summit 2019 in Washington, DC June 12, 2019. (Photo credit: EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)
In the restaurant space, delivery is unquestionably here to stay. It won’t look like it does now in the next year or so, however, especially as operators start negotiating down fees and competition yields to some consolidation.
The foodservice delivery category will also most certainly include next-iteration driverless vehicle and drone models. The latter won’t be so much a Jetsons-type scenario with flying objects cluttering the sky, but rather an option sharing room with vehicle delivery, pick-up, drive-thru and dine-in channels. That’s at least according to Yariv Bash, CEO of Tel Aviv-based Flytrex, one of the first companies trying to work out the kinks in this space.
Iceland company AHA and Flytrex launched drone delivery in 2017. Now, Flytrex is testing food deliveries in a Raleigh, North Carolina, suburb with an undisclosed restaurant partner and an objective of providing information to help develop regulatory framework to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Some other companies you may have heard of are also doing this testing—Google, Amazon and Uber.
In April, Google’s parent company Alphabet got the green light from the FAA to start delivering goods via drone in Virginia. The company’s service is already underway in Australia and includes foodservice establishments.
Amazon unveiled its Prime Air delivery drone in early June, with plans to deliver packages from the Amazon platform “in the coming months.”
Also in June, Uber received permission from the FAA to test drone delivery in San Diego. Its initial test phase included Uber Eats’ partner McDonald’s, and the company plans to test the service with other restaurant partners later this year, according to TechCrunch.
With such deep-pocketed heavy hitters involved, expect the market to evolve quickly. The NPD Group recently predicted that food delivery via drone is “just over the horizon,” at least in the U.K.
Investors around the world seem to share this confidence. According to the Wall Street Journal, 364 venture capital deals worth a combined $4.9 billion backed the robotics and drones industry last year alone.
What’s the draw here? According to Bash, speed is the biggest hook. He estimates that drone delivery takes 5 to 10 minutes, versus 10 to 30 minutes at least for vehicle deliveries.
With this math, drones should be able to complete about 15 deliveries per hour, versus about three per hour via car in densely populated areas. So, in theory at least, there is an attractive potential of higher volumes for restaurants using the service.
“We predict a future of instant gratification, where customers want their food as fast as they can order it,” he said. “My expectation is that this will be common in a few years. Once people try it the first time and realize how fast it is, they’re not going to want to wait for a courier to arrive.”
Cost is another major advantage. As many third-party aggregates charge operators 15% to 30% in fees, drones are expected to be “significantly lower,” according to Bash, though he doesn’t know what that looks like quite yet.
“Those fees get very expensive because they go toward labor. For our system, a single human can make a lot more deliveries flying the drone than with a car or a bike,” he said.
And, no, restaurant operators won’t be expected to learn how to fly a drone. That skill is part of the service, just like a driver who works for Uber Eats.
“All the restaurant has to do is prepare the food,” Bash said.
Such assurance certainly doesn’t mean restaurant operators are going to rush to drone delivery whenever it’s officially regulated, however. Many are still grappling with how to best implement vehicle delivery without further squeezing profits or tripping up operations.
There are also plenty of logistics that still need to be figured out for drones. Flytrex’s courier hooks up the food, flies the drone and lowers the package at the point of delivery, for example, generating questions such as how the restaurant staff is involved (if at all). Uber’s model is slightly different. Couriers unload a package at a “safe landing zone,” which is then either picked up by a courier or landed on the roof of a parked Uber car, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
There is also the weather to contend with, which Bash has identified as the biggest challenge thus far.
“We currently cannot fly in harsh weather like heavy rain,” he said. “But the technology is evolving pretty fast to figure that out.”
Although the pace of this technology is swift, that doesn’t mean it’s new. In addition to Flytrex’s 2017 flight, Domino’s flew a pizza via drone in New Zealand in 2016 and Pieology also dabbled in drone delivery last year.
Still, despite these experiments and considering the bigger narrative of foodservice delivery, drone delivery has remained relatively stagnant as regulatory standards for what is called “complex low-altitude operation” remain undefined.
That should all change next year when the FAA receives learnings from Flytrex and others on how to best share airspace, how to ensure drones won’t crash and so on.
Bash expects the FAA to implement rules for drone deliveries by the end of 2020 and then it’s full speed ahead.
“I can tell you in working with the FAA that they are putting a lot of time and resources into this. They are highly motivated and they want this for the long term,” Bash said. “Now that companies like Amazon are starting to do this, it will move fast and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
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