Nevada-Based Skydrop Is Finding New Drone Wings Overseas

In July 2016, one of the first drones flying commercially in the United States carried a box of Slurpees, snacks and a chicken sandwich from a 7-11 convenience store in Nevada to a nearby customer’s back garden.  The drone carrier, then known as Flirtey, envisioned a booming business future for itself and for the retail drone delivery market as a whole.  But the momentum stalled.  Flirtey, like Amazon and other drone start-ups, including Walmart, found themselves struggling to perfect an aircraft that could pass muster with the Federal Aviation Administration’s tough safety and regulatory requirements.

Others soon gained the needed approval, in fits and starts.  But Flirtey, despite its early promise, never “took off.”

Today, eight years later, the Reno, NV-based company – operating under a new name, SkyDrop – has finally found its wings – overseas.  The company just received final approval from New Zealand’s’ Civil Aviation Authority to begin regular drone deliveries later this year.  It could be the start of something big, and for Skydrop’s founders, the fulfillment of a long-delayed dream.

New Zealand’s regulatory environment is far more drone friendly than America’s.  Wing, the subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has already flown tens of thousands of small package deliveries across the entire Australian region.  That’s given Skydrop an opening, but the CAA didn’t grant its approval to the company easily – far from it.

The company had to conduct several years of extensive testing of its drone prototype in the United States and New Zealand before getting the CAA’s go-ahead.  It also had to work closely and patiently with stakeholders in the small town of Huntly (pop. 10,000) to win over the local indigenous population known as the Waahi Paa, who demanded ownership of the delivery project, even rebranding SkyDrop’s drone, dubbed “The Hawk,” in its native language.

Another reason for SkyDrop’s newfound success is its unique safety technology, which includes an onboard parachute recovery system and IRIS obstacle-avoidance sensors that allow for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations at scale.  The company aims to expand its pilot operation in Huntly to additional nearby locations as part of a nationwide network of drone hubs across New Zealand.  The next step is to expand to Australia, Canada, and the European Union member countries, all of whom are highly receptive to SkyDrop’s state-of-the-art delivery method, officials say.

“SkyDrop is excited to work with the CAA to make New Zealand the innovation leader in speedier, cheaper, and greener last-mile drone delivery. This approval is a groundbreaking milestone for SkyDrop, and the drone delivery industry,” says company founder and CEO Matthew Sweeny.

Skydrop has several other drone products and services in development besides the Hawk, including a take-off and landing platform and autonomous flight operation software.  In addition to Domino’s and 7-11, the company recently added a breakthrough partnership with the Phoenix-based aviation company Mesa Air Group, which owns two small airlines.  Right now, Skydrop’s biggest obstacle may be financial:  the company’s still getting by with the $16 million it raised in a Series A round led by Menlo Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures back in 2017.  But with fresh investment support, it won’t be long before Skydrop starts flying stateside again.

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