The use of drones to make deliveries is taking flight lately, with the likes of Amazon and France's DPDgroup kicking off real-world trials of their technologies. In the meantime, however, 7-Eleven and drone company Flirtey have been quietly making light work of delivering items by flying robot, completing a total of 77 shipments so far.
The pair made their first delivery together in July, with a chicken sandwich, donuts, hot coffee, Slurpees and candy flown by one of Flirtey's autonomous drones from a store in Reno, Nevada, to a customer's nearby home. Since then, they have continued expanding the trials and made regular deliveries throughout November to 12 local customers who placed orders via a dedicated mobile app.
The customers ordered everyday goods like hot and cold food and over-the-counter medicines. Once an order was placed, it was relayed to the store where the goods were loaded onto a drone. The drone was then dispatched to the customer's location where it deposited the goods, before returning to the store. On average, the whole process took less than 10 minutes.
There are some 1,500 homes within a mile (1.6 km) of the Reno store, so 7-Eleven and Flirtey signing on more participants and ramping up the trial is a real possibility. What's more, there are over 10,000 7-Eleven stores in North America, compared to Amazon's fewer than 100 distribution centers, meaning that if the service can be expanded to other regions, Flirtey's drones could have a quite sizable footprint.
Nonetheless, the trials must still adhere to laws governing how commercial drones can be flown. These vary from place to place, but for now in the US they mean that among other things, drones cannot be flown over people without their permission and can only be operated within the line of sight (which in this case means a supervisor at the Reno store). This effectively rules out the idea of a wide-scale drone delivery service, so although Flirtey seems well placed to grow when these laws do change, for now its aircraft must be kept on a relatively tight leash.
The firm's story very much tracks that of the emerging delivery drone trend. The company was founded in Australia in late 2013, with an initial plan to help fellow Australian startup Zookai deliver rented textbooks to students. It was only a couple of months later that we got the first sniff of Amazon's planned Prime Air service.
The following year, around the same time that Google unveiled its planned delivery drone service, we learned that Flirtey had secured a partnership for testing its drone technology at the University of Nevada in Reno. That move to Reno, of course, would lead to the firm's current trial with 7-Eleven.
In the middle of 2015, Flirtey ran the first delivery drone service to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, flying medical supplies into a rural area of Wise County, Virginia. This would reflect a wider recognition that drones could do more than just deliver our parcels, but could be used for making emergency and disaster relief deliveries, too.
In Rwanda, for example, a partnership announced early this year for the drone delivery of medical supplies to rural areas came to fruition in October, while Flirtey itself has since been exploring the potential for ship-to-shore disaster relief deliveries. So while much of the buzz around drone deliveries is centered on how quickly it can bring us pizza, Flirtey seems focused on the bigger picture, where it is making some exciting progress indeed.
Flirtey and 7-Eleven plan to expand their delivery drone service next year.