2023 might just be the year that all the major drone delivery companies upend their drone pickup and delivery systems. This week, Flytrex followed its competitors including Zipline and Wing in announcing a major change to the way it loads its drones up to make deliveries.
Flytrex this week announced what it’s calling ‘Autonomous Pickup,’ a new capability designed to allow drones to pick up orders from restaurants and retailers via dropdown wire, which is a departure from its own system where meals and other orders were loaded onto the drone by the drone’s operator.
Flytrex, which is famous for making deliveries from large, national food chains via drone, says that the new method for loading orders onto the aircraft cuts the time needed for the drone to lower itself (the drone can remain hovering while it’s loaded, so it won’t need to take off and land between orders). Previously, Flytrex says the average delivery time from the moment an order is ready at the restaurant to delivery in customers’ yards was around 15 minutes. The company says the new Autonomous Pickup capability cuts down the time by about two-thirds.
The company also added that it ensures safety for those loading the drone, as they won’t be anywhere near the spinning propeller blades.
Here’s how the new Flytrex Autonomous Pickup system works:
- A Flytrex drone hovers close to the restaurant.
- It then releases a dropdown wire, which allows restaurant workers to attach the package directly to the tethered hook.
- Once the drone is loaded, it flies to customers’ homes to deliver the goods, slowly letting go of the order via a tether system (that process has not changed since this week’s new Autonomous Pickup system was announced).
Of course, while drones will be more quickly loaded without needing to take off and land, they do need to land eventually — that’s because of battery life limitations. Competitors such as Wing have said that battery life is among their biggest challenges.
A Flytrex spokesperson would not say what the battery life of the company’s drones are. However, they said battery life is not a concern for the company.
“For Flytrex’s service, battery life is less relevant than the delivery range our drone can reach,” a company spokesperson said. “At Flytrex we’re able to offer deliveries to customers within a three mile radius from our stations.”
The new system follows a trend among other drone delivery companies in improving its process for delivering and picking up goods. In March 2023, Zipline, which is considered the world’s largest drone delivery company, unveiled a new delivery platform called Platform 2 (P2). With P2, the company’s drones (called Zips) remain in the air throughout the process. When the Zip arrives at its destination, it hovers at that altitude as an autonomous delivery droid maneuvers down a tether, steers to the correct location, and gently drops off its package.
Around that same type, Google-affiliated drone delivery company Wing announced what it’s calling the Wing Delivery Network. The network relies on a contraption called the Autoloader, which sits outside (e.g. in a parking space), with no power or data connection needed. A retailer would place it outside their store and — when an order comes in — a store employee loads the package into the Autoloader, which then automatically latches the package on a drone once it arrives.
When will the Flytrex Autonomous Pickup system debut?
A Flytrex spokesperson said that, while initial roll out of its Autonomous Pickup would be gradual, eventually this new capability is intended to be the standard across all Flytrex delivery stations.
Among the restaurants partnering with Flytrex and its Autonomous Pickup ambitions include Unilever’s The Ice Cream Shop, Papa Johns, Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, and Little Caesars.
The company did not say which cities would be among the first to get the Autonomous Pickup system. But for now, Flytrex mostly operates in North Carolina, with drone delivery operations in the cities of Durham, Holly Springs and Raeford. In March 2022, it also launched drone delivery services in Granbury, Texas.
Flytrex sees big growth in recent years
With such service expansions, Flytrex has seen big growth in recent years in terms of how many potential customers it can serve.
What started as a relatively small project in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2017 has grown to a fairly robust operation with buy-in from the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration, establishing U.S. operations a few years later. Flytrex has participated in the FAA UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), which concluded in October 2020, and later joined the FAA’s continuation of that project called BEYOND.
Between the end of 2021 and end of 2022, Flytrex’s eligible customer base grew exponentially, from 40,000 eligible customers to 95,000 — that’s a 138% increase.
Another big step for the company came in January 2023, when Flytrex’s longtime partner Causey Aviation Unmanned was granted Standard Part 135 Air Carrier Certification from the FAA allowing it to operate and complete long-range on-demand commercial drone deliveries in the United States.
That’s enabled the growth to continue. Between summer 2023 versus the same period in 2022, Flytrex’s active customer base increased by 54%.
Of course, the number of eligible customers it can serve might not quite be as relevant as how many customers it has actually served. And there, Flytrex also delivers. The company says it has delivered to 81% more households this year compared to 2022.