In the suburbs of Dublin on a windy, overcast day in January, several alumni of Airbus SE and the British Royal Air Force watched as a flying object, shaped a bit like a crouching frog, hovered about 10m up in the air.
The craft, called MNA-1090, opened its cargo bay door and lowered a package — about the size of a shoebox — to the ground on a string. The robotics engineers who had helped design the vehicle opened the carton, looked inside and smiled: the dozen-or-so pots of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc ice cream were still perfectly frozen.
Late this month, customers on the outskirts of Dublin, far from the dense metropolises that make the food delivery services of firms like Uber Technologies Inc and Roofoods Ltd viable in terms of revenue, are to get to try ordering food and drink the same way.
Manna Aero built the MNA-1090 to be an airborne replacement for the human-and-bicycle formula used the world over by food delivery platforms and is preparing to run a couple of hundred test flights per day over several weeks to lay the groundwork for a permanent service for small Irish towns.
Ben & Jerry’s, UK food delivery firm Just Eat PLC and local Irish restaurant chain Camile Thai are signed up to participate in the pilot, which is to take place at the University College Dublin campus.
“In five years, it’s going to be the most normal thing you can imagine,” Manna CEO Bobby Healy said.
If you live in a city, having a hot meal delivered to your doorstep in less than an hour has never been easier or cheaper. For about the price of a small coffee, a human being will cycle to a restaurant, collect your freshly baked pizza and take it to your apartment.
Innovations in smartphones, mapping and gig-economy logistics have catalyzed growth of the sector, which research firm Frost & Sullivan has estimated will be worth US$200 billion by 2025.
However, the margins are tiny for the companies handling the delivery and the competition is fierce.
In October last year, Grubhub Inc executives told shareholders that they did not believe it was even possible to generate significant profit from food delivery.
The cost of paying people to drive food around was just too much, they said.
Companies are looking for an alternative and a roster of investors believe that Healy might have a model that could work: a drones-as-a-service for restaurants and delivery apps.
Here is how Healy said it will work: Manna would partner with restaurants or food courts that have a high throughput of orders and a small outdoor space to house a drone-loading team.
The Manna craft itself is about the size of a computer printer and would carry meals weighing about 2kg more than 2km in less than three minutes, even in wind and rain.
Upon arriving at its destination, the drone will hover and wait for the customer to accept delivery using an app, having indicated when ordering exactly where they want their food to land — on the lawn, an outdoor dining table or just in the driveway.
The drone will descend and lower the food parcel, which Healy said would still be “piping hot.”
Manna’s vehicle has been designed to travel for 100 million hours without a problem, Healy said in an interview.
However, in addition to space for three 10-inch pizzas, it also has a backup battery and two parachutes, just in case.
The 51-year-old Irish entrepreneur is a mobility veteran. In 2003, he sold off travel software firm Eland Technologies to industry titan SITA. He then helped build CarTrawler into a transportation platform used by more than 100 international airlines.
Healy has got some well-known names putting US$5.2 million behind Manna, including billionaire Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Dynamo venture capital and FF Venture Capital.
For food platforms, Manna said that the service is more than just a gimmick — it will redue delivery costs and allow them to scale to currently underserved suburban areas in a profitable way.
Healy said that Manna’s drone delivery would cost platforms US$3 to US$5 per delivery.
Fabricio Bloisi, CEO of online delivery platform iFood in Brazil, said that the use of drones is a “great breakthrough” for the industry because of their efficiency and ability to travel relatively large distances.
He said that his company is working with Sao Paulo-based Speedbird Aero to reduce delivery time by combining the use of drones with bicycles and motorbikes.
Uber is testing a drone for food delivery in San Diego, California, and Alphabet Inc’s Wing is already delivering coffee, food, medicine and household items directly to homes in Finland, Australia and the US state of Virginia.
Amazon.com Inc is also developing its Prime Air service, with a view to delivering parcels, not necessarily food, of up to 2.3kg via drone. The company is bidding for a stake in the UK’s Roofoods.
Healy is not worried. He is pitching Manna as a business-to-business company, where its drones are used by food delivery companies, not end consumers. To the entrepreneur, Wing is not his rival.
“We’re arming their competitors,” Healy said.
Still, not everyone is so rosy about the drone delivery trend.
In a sign of how divided views are on the technology, Dutch food delivery firm Takeaway.com NV — which has bought Just Eat, one of Manna’s partners for the pilot — said that it thinks drone delivery for food is a “fantasy.”
“We just don’t see any way how it can work currently from a technical perspective,” Takeaway spokesman Joris Wilton said. “We will not be investing in developing it in-house.”
Miki Kuusi, co-founder and CEO of Helsinki-based food delivery company Wolt, said that his company has tested drone deliveries, but added that “it’s been more PR [public relations] than actually about a business case.”
That partly has to do with complexities around picking up the food orders, he said.
Drone services have to be deeply integrated with the restaurants to ensure that drones are loaded in the right way, something “most restaurants in a hectic environment are not equipped to do,” he added.
Then there is the tricky issue of regulation. Airspace authorities have tightened restrictions on drone usage as their popularity with consumers and troublemakers has grown.
People have also expressed discomfort at the idea of machinery whizzing above their homes — both for privacy and safety reasons.
Add to that the complexity of hauling hot food in the sky over several kilometers and it is an uphill battle for any start-up to launch a service.
Healy recognizes that changing the industry would not happen overnight, given the need to safely test the technology and get approvals from regulators, as well as from local communities, at each new stage.
Still, he expects to have completed between 20,000 and 50,000 successful deliveries by year-end.
“With this industry it’s ‘crawl, walk, run,’” Healy said. “We want to crawl for a little while, we want everyone to feel good about it.”
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