India’s Zomato flies drone to deliver food in successful test

Zomato, one of India’s largest food delivery firms, may have figured out a faster way to crawl through dense populated routes: going via air with drones.

The company, which has expanded its restaurant listing and booking service to about two-dozen markets in recent years, said today it has successfully tested a payload delivery from a hybrid drone.

The drone carried a payload of 5 kgs (11 pounds) and covered 5 kms (3.1 miles) in 10 mins, said Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, which aims to deliver food to customers in less than 15 minutes some day. The drone hit a peak speed of 80 kmph (49.7 mph). It was a non-commercial delivery.

“Fifteen minutes is only possible if we take the aerial route – roads are not efficient for very fast delivery. While our biker fleet nowadays delivers in 30.5 minutes on an average (which is the fastest in the industry as far as we know), every incremental minute with our fleet becomes harder as it separates our users from their ordered food,” he said.

For Zomato, the drone test is more than a gimmick. The delivery firm, heavily backed by Ant Financial and Delivery Hero, acquired local drone startup TechEagle last year. Goyal said the company has finalized the design of its drone, which is lightweight and hosts an array of sensors to detect and avoid static and dynamic objects in its journey.

“Although being fully automated, each drone is currently being tested with (remote) pilot supervision to ensure 100% safety. Over time, as we have more data, we might not need remote pilot supervision,” he added.

The announcement comes at a time when Uber too is gearing up to introduce drones for food delivery for its UberEats business. The global giant, which has concluded its initial phase of testing at San Diego State University in partnership with McDonald’s, plans to include others Eats restaurant partners later this year. Amazon too plans to begin drone deliveries “within months.”

How soon Zomato would be able to deploy these drones in its delivery fleet remains an open question. The firm said it will form a consortium, in accordance with local government’s direction, to carry out experimental drone operations in the country.

Much like the rest of the world, New Delhi has expressed its concerns over firms that want to operate drones commercially in the nation. Last month, a government body asked (PDF) interested stakeholders to express their interest in experimental use of drones that travel beyond visual line of sight. So far, the local regulation requires them to operate drones only during the day and within line of sight.

Goyal of Zomato, which is locked in an intense battle with heavily backed Swiggy for tentpole position in India’s food delivery market, remains optimistic. “Food delivery by drones is no longer just a pipe dream. It’s almost here. Regulatory hurdles are not trivial, and the government’s concerns need to be looked at from various (valid) points of view. Having said that, the tech is ready to fly and I am confident that drone delivery will be commonplace sooner rather than later,” he said.

According to a report from Indian outlet Economic Times, Zomato is in talks to raise as much as $1 billion.