It’s been 10 years since Jeff Bezos went on 60 Minutes and promised a world of ubiquitous drone delivery — where people would order everyday household items online and a drone would fly them to their backyard within a few hours. That world is a far-off dream for many. But for one drone delivery customer in Durham, North Carolina, it’s completely real.
Mike Shanklin, who works as a project manager at a healthcare software company, has placed more than 140 deliveries through Flytrex, a drone delivery company that operates in his neighborhood.
Flytrex is a relatively small yet growing player in the drone delivery space, especially compared to Wing (the sibling to Google) and Zipline, which is generally considered to be the largest drone delivery company in the world. And it only operates in a few very limited areas around the U.S., mostly in a few parts of North Carolina including Holly Springs and in a two-mile radius around Southpoint Mall in southern Durham. The radius is so small, in fact, that one resident might be eligible for Flytrex drone delivery service, while neighbors a block over wouldn’t be.
But Shanklin is one of the lucky ones eligible for drone delivery. And given his luck, he flexes — many times a week. He’s one of Flytrex’s most-frequent customers, frequently ordering lunch for himself, occasional grocery items for his household and meals for his kids and their friends. And when they have guests over, he often places an order — just because it’s a cool party trick.
Shanklin chatted with The Drone Girl in a Q&A to explain what it’s actually like to get a drone to bring items to your home and to share the pros and cons of drone delivery. This interview has been edited for clarity and length:
Drone Girl: You’ve made dozens and dozens of drone delivery orders from Flytrex, but what was that first one like?
Mike Shanklin: We had just bought a house in southeast Durham. One day during September 2022, someone had left a flyer on the door indicating a new option was available for us — drone delivery. If we wanted to participate, someone would have to come scout our house, so we set up an appointment for the next day.
And sure enough that morning, someone from Flytrex came to our house and spotted a place where the drone could make the landing.
That night, we were hosting a housewarming party with about 50 guests over. And during the party, around 8 p.m., my wife had entered an order into the Flytrex app on her phone just to try out the drone.
DG: What was that first order?
MS: It was a cheeseburger. It was more out of inquiry than hunger. And shortly after she placed that order, my wife got a message on the Flytrex app saying the drone was coming. It was accurate down to the second as to when and where the drone would drop off the food.
DG: So it sounds like a food delivery drone became a guest at your party.
MS: Yeah, as you can imagine, everyone thought this was the coolest thing — especially the kids.
DG: How did the delivery actually work?
MS: It took a few minutes for the food to release once the drone arrived. The drone has this little hook that drops the food in a yellow, Flytrex branded bag. There’s no landing pad and the drone never touches down. It stays about 75 feet off the ground. After the food settles down, the drone knows to unhook it and the hook goes back up into the drone.
DG: And ever since that housewarming party, you’ve become an avid Flytrex drone delivery customer.
MS: At this point now, it’s become a regular part of my life. I work from home. I don’t have time to make my own meal for lunch. I can just place an order through the app, and 30-45 minutes later and my food arrives.
Editor’s note: Flytrex has an app on the Apple and Google Play store that anyone can download, which functions similarly to other food delivery apps like UberEats or DoorDash. Customers can browse meals from eligible restaurants and place an order (though they’ll only ship to eligible addresses that have been pre-vetted by Flytrex.
DG: So it sounds like you’d probably order lunch every day anyway, for the most part. Does it matter to you whether you order food via drone or a more standard driver service?
MS: It’s about whatever is most convenient. Personally for me, most of the nostalgia has worn off. But sometimes I order it when I have guests over and they’ve never seen it before.
DG: Oh, I’d absolutely do the same for my guests! And is there any additional cost?
MS: Technically for now, there are no delivery fees on Flytrex. But I suspect the prices in the Flytrex app are bumped up from the price you’d pay if you ordered directly from the restaurant. It feels like when I order from, say, PF Changs, it’s always a few dollars more. Flytrex also recently added the option to include a tip.
(Editor’s note: Some competing drone delivery services do charge delivery fees. For example, Walmart drone deliveries are offered at a fixed delivery fee of $3.99. And other ground food delivery apps have been known to charge higher prices versus ordering directly from the restaurant, similarly to Flytrex’s practice.)
DG: And do you tip? What does a flying robot do with a tip?
MS: There’s definitely a fair number of people behind this operation that I know the tips go to. It seems like they have a crew that does these rounds and goes to the restaurants to pick up the food. They also have people at the launch pad connecting the food to the drone, making sure it takes off and lands properly.
DG: Even with the upcharge, you don’t mind?
MS: The time savings are totally worth it. Without drone delivery, I’d have to go out and drive somewhere to get food.
DG: What if they start charging delivery fees though? Do you still think you’d order 3-4x a week, and what’s the maximum drone delivery fee you would pay?
MS: It would probably depend on the price and volume of food. If I’m buying for a family of four plus my kids’ friends, they I might be willing to pay a $10 delivery fee. If it’s just a 6-inch Subway sub for my lunch, I wouldn’t pay that much because that would be more than the cost of my sub.
DG: Do you have a preference for drone versus ground deliveries?
MS: Flytrex is cooler and it’s usually cheaper. I do sometimes order from DoorDash in the morning because Flytrex’s hours are limited and they don’t run that early.
Right now I prefer Flytrex purely because it’s more economical. There comes a point though where, if DoorDash is the cheaper option, no matter how cool the drone is, I’ll go with that.
DG: You’ve done so many deliveries. Have there ever been any issues?
MS: Yeah, so I mentioned that hook that returns back into the drone so it won’t re-hook or get yanked by anything as the drone flies away.
Once though, the hook accidentally got re-hooked into our tree. It was a really windy day and the wind just blew it right into the tree.
Interestingly though, the drone could sense the hook was stuck, so it automatically disconnected the cable from the drone. Someone from Flytrex had to come over and grab the cable from our tree.
They’ve since moved our drone landing location to be farther away from that tree just by a few feet, and it hasn’t happened since. I’ll add, if there are winds over 15 mph they won’t send the drone.
Then there have just been a few other occasional issues. At one point early on, the local cell tower went down which impacted deliveries.
DG: How does your drone delivery usage compare to that of your neighbors?
MS: A lot of people in our neighborhood who qualify for Flytrex still don’t even know about it.
DG: Really?! Don’t they see the drones?
MS: Probably half of my neighborhood knows about it at this point. For what it’s worth, Flytrex keeps expanding and — while it was a rarity six months ago, now it’s the norm.
DG: But no one orders as much as you.
MS: I don’t know if they don’t know if other neighbors don’t know about it, or if they haven’t taken the time to set it up, as someone does need to come scout out your house. But I’m definitely the outlier. I’m the main orderer of the town.
Another neighbor told me they thought it would be more expensive. After all, there is this new, expensive drone flying to them.
DG: Even if the neighbors aren’t actually adopting the tech for themselves, do you think there will be other pushback to drones?
MS: I do wonder if people will be upset about the noise, especially as usage increases. The drones can be somewhat loud and they need to find a way to reduce the noise.
(Editor’s note: Competitors have been developing tech improvements to reduce noise, such as Zipline’s recently-launched Platform 2).
Especially as the tech scales up, there are going to be even more drones, thus even more sound. I want the tech to succeed. And I really do hope the company succeeds. I’m a big supporter of the vision they have and this could be huge for the future.
DG: So what’s the most common item you order from Flytrex?
MS: Definitely Subway. Though, my kids’ favorite order is from McDonald’s. And now there’s a Girl Scout Cookie store. I order the Peanut Butter Patties.
Flytrex last month released its “2022 HighFlights” report, which suggests massive drone delivery customer growth. The company said it reached more than 4,000 users in 2022, which is a 765% increase. Read more from that report and what Flytrex is up to lately here.