The (successful) startup perspective
Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny is not fazed by the difficulties facing smaller UAV tech companies. His company has continually been breaking UAV records in the U.S. since its founding in 2013.
From the get-go, Sweeny has been working on public perception. The company name, Flirtey, was an attempt to combat the militaristic perception of UAV, and add a “fun, playful, and personable” feeling to the flying robots.
In fact, he says modern commercial UAVs have a lot more in common with model aircraft than their multimillion-dollar military drone siblings. It has been easier to scale hobby components up, rather than scaling military technology down. With the rise of affordable autopilots and miniaturization of tech like GPS and gyroscopes, we’ve seen rise the modern age of miniaturized, autonomous aircraft.
Autonomy continues to challenge micro UAV delivery. Hobby aircraft are not known for their reliability. Prototypes are fairly easy to build: You can order online all the components for a cargo UAV from China for less than $200, and with a few weeks of tinkering, you’ll have a working drone.
But that aircraft (or, presumably, its pilot) is nowhere near ready to fly in the U.S. airspace, around people, or beyond visual line-of-sight. It does not have the redundant systems, quality, robustness, repeatability, or reliability, nor is it part of a reliable overarching control system.
The tale in the media has been one crafted by hype and expectation: Drones are cheap, easy, and in the final stages prior to systematic deployment. But it’s the system that is yet to be deduced.
This system is vital because drone technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The UAV itself is only a piece of the puzzle. Regulations, launch and landing systems, government relations, deployment strategy, in-country operations, maintenance processes, customer service, and public perception are key hurdles to overcome as well. It’s the entirety of the puzzle, not the individual pieces, that pose the greatest challenge.
But companies continue to push forward: Sweeny’s goal is to have Flirtey delivering packages to American homes in a year’s time. In three years, he’d like to do it at scale, and in 10 years, he foresees the ability “to deliver anything, any time, anywhere, globally.”
Until now, the narrative has been controlled by the large logistics organizations. We’ll see if the startups can compete, or perhaps surpass them. Only time will tell.
Note: A version of this story appears in the September/October issue of Drone360