Article was originally published on freightwaves.com by Jack Daleo on September 17th, 2021
Fly-on-the-wall business is part drone delivery, part autonomy
It’s that time of week again. In the first installment of Drone Disruptors, Modern Shipper talked with Flytrex co-founder and CEO Yariv Bash about bringing drone deliveries to your backyard, including the utopian possibility of a subscription to your morning coffee (via drone, of course).
In part two of this five-week series, we talked to a company that’s going a decidedly different direction.
“We’re not trying to deliver that cup of coffee to your doorstep as our first offering,” Will Roper, newly minted CEO of Volansi, told Modern Shipper. “We would like to be the most boring drone company in the world; that makes the biggest world impact. … If commercial customers are excited about our drones, then we’ve missed the mark of being like Maytag, but for drones – reliable, repeatable and you can depend on us.”
Where Flytrex sees value in the consumer-facing drone delivery space, Volansi wants to be a fly on the wall. This week, Modern Shipper sat down with Roper to talk autonomy, peanut butter and the U.S. military.
A middle-class drone
Coming from the military as the Air Force’s former assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, Roper views drones like the military views them – in classes or groups. There are five of them, beginning with Group 1 and ending with Group 5, with each denoting a specific weight, altitude, speed and function. To Roper, though, the idea of building a drone that covers all five classes is, ahem, nuts.
“If we peanut butter spread ourselves over every possible customer demand, we won’t be good at anything,” he explained. “So we’re going to be really good at this middle class.”
Volansi’s delivery drones are what the military would classify as Group 3, meaning they don’t specialize in short- or long-range deliveries – they’re right in the middle. Most companies emphasize shorter trips and B2C deliveries, but Volansi is, quite literally, thinking bigger. Its smallest drone offering can carry 10 pounds of cargo over 100 miles, and Roper says the company is working on even greater range and payload capabilities.
For heavier deliveries, Roper sees B2B as a better play than B2C. B2C has a massive market if companies are able to crack it, he says, but it comes with too many technology and liability considerations. It’s tough to standardize consumer airdrops when each backyard has an entirely different geography, and that could lead to technical or legal problems, so Roper’s vision is to drop packages off at local FedEx or UPS stores, where customers can pick them up instead.
The drones themselves are only a part of Volansi’s offering. The company is also pouring loads of time and energy into building out its proprietary autonomous software, which can be implemented into any drone the company makes – and any drone it doesn’t.
“The approach that we have to the software is that it is common and consistent across all of our drones, and we can even run it on drones that we don’t make,” Roper explained. “So that means when we bring a new drone online, even though its hardware is flying for the first time, its software has thousands of flights and thousands of landings already under its hood.”
Roper’s vision is zero-person operations, with no ground personnel whatsoever. He wants Volansi’s drones to be operated remotely with the click of a button, and that sort of model would make operations cheaper while simultaneously enabling rapid scaling.
“A fact that is not widely known outside of the military is how human intensive drones are. And so what I share with the companies is this: It is going to be easy to get pulled into the drone wars – how far, how fast, how much – but you want to win the ground game,” he said. “You want to keep the required personnel footprint as small as possible because it eats your lunch as it scales.”
Companies with autonomous drone tech wouldn’t need to worry about building out (or paying for) human infrastructure if they wanted to operate overseas – they could do it all remotely, making it easier for them to scale their drone delivery operations wherever they please. And according to Roper, Volansi is just getting started on that side of things.
“It may be that we’re not a drone manufacturer five years from now. We don’t view ourselves as a drone company – we’re an autonomy company that happens to make drones to put their software into. We think that autonomy is our future.”
Shipping between ships
To get to where it is today, Volansi partnered with perhaps the biggest drone operator in the world – the U.S. military. It had been testing its drones with the military even before Roper signed on, but the ex-Air Force secretary sees the company’s relationship with the armed forces as one of its biggest advantages.
“If you think of the military as a market, it’s a very interesting market. It can pay for things at a higher price point, it can adopt things at a higher risk tolerance, it allows production in smaller quantities and it has completely different regulations than the commercial market. It’s perfect for the drone delivery industry,” he explained.
Working with the military has allowed Volansi to run some pretty cool pilot projects – and even a historic one. Last month, in collaboration with the Navy and Coast Guard, the company demonstrated the first-ever fully autonomous drone delivery between two moving ships at sea. Over three flights, the company tested out its VOLY 10 and VOLY 20 drones, successfully flying them several miles in 20 mph winds.
To fly with the military, all Volansi needed was a military flight certification, bypassing the many regulatory challenges drone companies face when trying to get off the ground. Flying in a controlled environment also gives the company a perfect testing ground for its products, so it can iron out any problems before bringing them to the market. For many startups, collaborating with the armed forces is unattractive because it can put them on a pipeline toward becoming defense contractors, but Roper believes that the tides are shifting.
“Historically, working with the military has not been a good business strategy for startups. … That is changing, fortunately,” said Roper. “I did my best to try to change that during my government service and brought about 2,300 startups in to work with the Air Force, Volansi being one of them. So the military is trying to change the way it works with startups so that they don’t have to become defense contractors. They can just be technology companies.”
Volansi’s slogan is “Fly anything, anywhere.” Roper must have taken that message to heart because he wants to fly everywhere.
“We’re flying in Senegal today delivering parts; we’re flying in other West African nations targeting medical delivery; we’re delivering vaccines with Merck; we’re delivering emergency equipment in North Carolina beyond the line of sight. We’re in remote areas where it’s easier to get flight time sooner.”
While flying in remote areas may not be as profitable right away, it gets Volansi’s drones in the air faster, which gives the company crucial experience and data that it can use to improve its delivery service. That’s why Volansi often flies in West African countries like Senegal, where the airspace regulations are generally more permissive than in the U.S.
The company hasn’t strayed too far from home, though. It’s partnering with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to deliver emergency equipment in the Outer Banks and is also targeting FAA certification to fly in densely populated areas.
According to Roper, the regulatory challenges plaguing the U.S. airspace are stymying innovation from drone companies. While 2021 has seen some fascinating drone delivery pilot projects, Roper thinks there’s more that the government can do to encourage the growth of the industry so that drone startups can tap into a drone delivery market that’s expected to take off in the near future.
“This is a very difficult market. It’s a technically challenging market, as well as a regulatorily challenged market, and so I think all companies have an uphill climb. But there’s a huge downslope on the other side for those that are successful.”