For Remote Aerial Package Deliveries, Zipline and Flytrex Are Hard to Beat
Not all remote aerial package delivery companies are enjoying enormous success these days. But two state-of-the-art drone delivery companies– Zipline and Flytrex — achieved important new milestones last week, placing them at the forefront of the field.
Silicon Valley-based Zipline, which first garnered global headlines when it pioneered emergency medical supply flights to Rwanda via drone back in 2016, just passed the 500,000 deliveries mark. Over the past six years, the company has expanded out from Rwanda to five other African nations, including most recently Ghana, as well as to Japan, where aerial package deliveries are spreading rapidly across the mainland and to smaller offshore islands.
Here in the US, Zipline is partnering with Walmart to deliver store consumer goods in Arkansas, (one of six states chosen by the nation’s leading retailer for its much ballyhooed launch last month) and has just begun piloting medical supply deliveries to remote towns inaccessible to road vehicles in North Carolina and Utah.
According to Zipline co-founder Keller Cliffton, the company’s drones have delivered 5 million packages and traveled a combined 36 million miles – a distance equal to 75 trips to the moon and back. No other drone company currently in operation can match Zipline’s flight record.
Flytrex, meanwhile, just received Part 135 authorization from the FAA to conduct autonomous long-distance package deliveries in the US. Four other companies, including Zipline, Alphabet’s Wing, UPS and Amazon already enjoy this same status. Flytrex claims to have launched the world’s first fully autonomous urban drone delivery system in Reykjavik, Iceland back in 2017. Currently, Flytrex partners with Causey Aviation to make small remote package deliveries in North Carolina and Texas.
“We live in an era of instant gratification, where consumers want to get their food or goods faster, more reliably, more economically and more sustainably – and drone delivery has risen to the occasion,” Flytrex co-founder and CEO Yariv Bash said last week. “Flytrex’s continued success delivering to customers throughout North Carolina and Texas has put us ahead of the curve. With this certification, we look forward to bringing our super swift, sustainable and safe airborne delivery systems to every backyard across the US.”
In fact, many of these companies are still in the early pilot stage and not all are enjoying success. Despite its Part 137 certification, Amazon still requires an on-the-ground safety team to manage its flights and the company is not permitted to fly over roads without first gaining pre-flight permission from the FAA. Partly as a result, Amazon has made just 10 deliveries during its first month of pilot operations near Lockeford, CA and College Station, TX – its two designated test sites, company officials say.
UPS, meanwhile, appears to have backed off of its bold predictions back in 2020-2021 that it would be rapidly expanding drove delivery flights nationwide. In a remarkably candid public statement, UPS CEO Carol Tomé told Bloomberg last year: “You can’t fly [drones] when it’s windy. You can’t fly them when it’s rainy. There are lots of issues with drones.” Tomé, when pressed, refused to elaborate, but the company’s service has yet to gain real traction. Instead, Tomé appears to have shifted the company’s emphasis away from smaller remote package delivery drones toward larger business-to-business cargo drones which some industry experts believe may be a more “scalable “ – and therefore, profitable – option.
One reason for Zipline’s success, the company says, is its reliance on small unmanned fixed-wing airplanes rather than traditional drones that resemble helicopters and are far more vulnerable to weather conditions. Zipline drones also release their packages via parachute rather than seeking to land in backyards or to lower packages to the ground on a cable. The drones make rapid fly-overs of their drop zones rather than seeking to hover in place, leaving them exposed to the elements.
Amazon Prime Air’s past record of safety failures has damaged the company’s reputation and limited FAA’s authorization for fully autonomous Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, industry observers say. Walmart, which is piloting drone flights in 34 different US cities, contracted out its drone technology development to another firm, which has improved its safety record. By partnering with industry pioneer Zipline in Arkansas, Walmart’s likely to become the second most successful package delivery company in the country, industry observers say.