Drone Disruptors: Volansi’s autonomous drone ecosystem
It’s that time of the week again. In the first installment of Drone Disruptors, Modern Shipper spoke with Flytrex co-founder and CEO Yariv Bash about the possibility of delivering drones to your backyard, including the utopian possibility of a subscription to your morning coffee (via drone, of course).
Read: Drone Disruptors: Flytrex brings drones to your backyard
In Part 2 of this five-week series, we spoke to a company that is taking a decidedly different direction.
“We’re not trying to deliver this cup of coffee to your door as a first offer,” Volansi’s new CEO Will Roper told Modern Shipper. “We would like to be the most boring drone company in the world; which has the greatest global 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 count on us.
Where Flytrex sees value in the consumer drone delivery space, Volansi wants to be a fly on the wall. This week, Modern Shipper sat down with Roper to talk about self-reliance, peanut butter, and the U.S. military.
A bourgeois drone
Coming from the military as the former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Roper views drones as the military sees them – in the classroom or in a group. There are five, starting with group 1 and ending with group 5, each indicating a specific weight, altitude, speed and function. For Roper, however, the idea of building a drone that covers all five classes is, um, crazy.
“If we spread the peanut butter on every possible customer request, we will be no good,” he explained. “So we’re going to be really good in 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 favor shorter journeys and B2C deliveries, but Volansi is literally thinking bigger. His the smallest The drone offering can carry 10 pounds of cargo over 100 miles, and Roper says the company is working on even greater range and payload capacities.
For heavier deliveries, Roper considers B2B a better game than B2C. B2C has a huge market if companies are able to break into it, he says, but with it comes too many technological and liability considerations. It’s difficult to standardize consumer airdrops when every backyard has an entirely different geography, and that could lead to technical or legal issues. So Roper’s vision is to drop packages off at local FedEx or UPS stores, where customers can pick them up instead.
Operations without a person
The drones themselves are only part of Volansi’s offering. The company also spends a lot of time and energy building its proprietary stand-alone software, which can be implemented in any drone the company makes – and any drone it doesn’t make. .
“Our approach to software is that it’s common and consistent across all of our drones, and we can even run it on drones that we don’t manufacture,” Roper explained. “So that means that when we bring a new drone online, even if its hardware flies for the first time, its software already has thousands of flights and thousands of landings under its hood.”
Roper’s vision is zero-person operations, with no ground personnel. He wants Volansi’s drones to be remotely operated with one click, and this type of model would make operations cheaper while still allowing for rapid scaling.
“One fact that is not widely known outside the military is how human intensive drones are. And so what I am sharing with businesses is this: it will be easy to get drawn into war. drones – how far, how fast, how bad – but you want to win the ground game, “he said.” You want to keep the required staff footprint as small as possible, because it eats your lunch as it evolves. ”
Companies with autonomous drone technology wouldn’t have to worry about building (or paying for) human infrastructure if they wanted to operate overseas – they could do everything remotely, allowing them to expand. more easily their drone delivery operations wherever they want. And according to Roper, Volansi is only starting on that side.
“We may not be a drone maker in five years. We don’t see ourselves as a drone company – we are a stand-alone company that makes drones into which to integrate their software. We believe that autonomy is our future.
Shipping between ships
To get to where it is today, Volansi has teamed up with perhaps the world’s largest drone operator – the US military. She was testing her drones with the military before Roper even enlisted, but the former Secretary of the Air Force sees the company’s relationship with the military as one of its greatest benefits.
“If you think of the military as a market, it’s a very interesting market. It can pay for things at a higher price, it can adopt things with a higher risk tolerance, it allows production in smaller quantities, and it has completely different regulations than the commercial market. It is 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, working with the Navy and Coast Guard, the company demonstrated the first-ever fully autonomous drone delivery between two moving vessels at sea. In three flights, the company tested its drones VOLY 10 and VOLY 20, making them fly successfully for several kilometers in winds of 20 mph.
To fly with the military, all Volansi needed was a military flight certification, bypassing the many regulatory challenges drone companies face when attempting to take off. Flying in a controlled environment also gives the company a perfect testing ground for its products, allowing them to resolve any issues before they are brought to market. For many startups, collaborating with the military isn’t appealing because it can put them on a pipeline to become defense contractors, but Roper believes the tides are changing.
“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 while I was in government and brought about 2,300 startups 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 this message to heart because he wants to fly all over.
“We are flying to Senegal today to deliver parts; we fly to other West African countries targeting medical delivery; we deliver vaccines with Merck; we deliver emergency supplies to North Carolina beyond the line of sight. We are in remote areas where it is easier to get flight time earlier.
Read: Drone highways in the sky could be on the horizon
Read: The 5 most fascinating drone deliveries of 2021 (so far)
While flying in remote areas may not be as profitable right now, it allows Volansi’s drones to fly faster, giving the company crucial experience and data it can use to improve its business. delivery service. This is why Volansi often flies in West African countries like Senegal, where airspace regulations are generally more permissive than in the United States.
However, the company hasn’t strayed too far from home. It is partnering with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to deliver emergency equipment to the Outer Banks and is also aiming for FAA certification to fly in densely populated areas.
Regulatory challenges plaguing U.S. airspace are hampering innovation for drone companies, Roper says. While 2021 has seen some fascinating drone delivery pilots, Roper believes the government can do more to encourage the growth of the industry so that drone startups can tap into a drone delivery market that is expected to take off in the near future. to come up.
“It’s a very difficult market. It’s a technically difficult market, as well as a market with regulatory challenges, and so I think all companies have a tough climb. But there is a huge downward slope on the other side for those who are successful.
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