As countries around the world gradually lift regulations on the use of commercial drones, a new startup called Flirtey hopes to turn Australia into a worldwide industry leader for the use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in e-commerce deliveries. Flirtey plans to launch commercial drone delivery of textbooks purchased from Zookal for domestic customers in 2014 before expanding to the U.S. in 2015. The startup says this marks the first use of fully automated commercial zones for package delivery in the world.
Other companies seeking to legitimize drones for commercial use include the U.S.-based 3D Robotics, which recently raised a $30 million Series B round, and Matternet. Flirtey, a joint venture with Zookal, a student services platform, started as a project by engineering students at the University of Sydney and now seeks to test, scale and commercialize UAVs before exporting its technology around the world.
Ahmed Haider, CEO of Zookal and co-founder of Flirtey, says Australia is in a unique position to pioneer the global UAV industry because of regulations by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) designed to encourage adoption of drone technology, as well as the continent’s geography, which ranges from densely populated cities to vast swathes of rural Outback.
Zookal will use Flirtey to send parcels for free and claims deliveries can be made in as little as two or three minutes, compared to two or three days for traditional shipping methods. Upon arrival at an outdoor delivery destination, Flirtey’s drones hover and lower the parcel through a custom delivery mechanism that is attached to a retractable cord. Real-time GPS tracking of each drone’s location will be available through the Flirtey app for smartphones.
One of the reasons Zookal decided to pursue commercial drone deliveries was because of concerns over the cost and performance of parcel shipments as its business grew. Haider says the use of UAVs will cut Zookal’s costs from $8.60 AUD to 80 cents AUD per delivery.
Flirtey’s goal is to present UAVs as a speedier, cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional delivery methods. One of the startup’s biggest challenges, however, is the public perception of drones. In Australia, critics have described the UAVs as a “safety and privacy headache.” Though Congress has required the FAA to come up with legislation that will allow commercial drones by 2015, lawmakers and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are voicing concerns over the use of drones in aerial surveillance.
To address these issues, Flirtey is currently collaborating with the The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering, a non-profit research institute, to draft a set of guidelines for the use of commercial drones.
“We hope to use this guide as a way to work through safety, privacy and community concerns locally which will hopefully set a benchmark for the rest of the world as to how to interact with this new technology,” says Haider. The startup also advocates the establishment of a non-profit association that will allow UAV operators to share safety innovations in hardware, software or test data online.
Haider and Flirtey co-founder Matthew Sweeny say that several safeguards have been built into Flirtey’s UAVs, including “collision avoidance technology” to prevent them from crashing into trees, buildings or birds; a mechanism that forces drones to hover and then land slowly if it loses signal range or experiences technical failure; and the ability to override autonomous operation and allow a person to take control. Flirtey’s commercial drones don’t have cameras in order to prevent privacy intrusions.
“As with most major innovations that start with a military background, such as the Internet, SMS, GPS and satellites, when applied to a community problem they have a significant and positive impact on society. Our goal is to do this with UAVs. We don’t store any user data other than what is required to safely deliver the product,” says Haider.
Haider is hopeful that UAVs will close the gap between innovation in e-commerce and the logistics industry, which has used the same delivery methods for decades.
“Textbooks are an excellent way to test the market as they allow for varying weights,” he says. “With the concentration of students in universities in Australia, we will have proof of concept that shows if you can deliver a textbook, then things such as urgent medical deliveries, clothes, shoes, fast food and other e-commerce will be much more viable.”