Drone company Flirtey first caught our attention last year when it teamed up with fellow Australian startup Zookai, promising schoolbooks delivered by drone. Almost twelve months on, CEO Matt Sweeney has secured a partnership to conduct high-tech testing at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and is eyeing off New Zealand as a testbed to grow his business. So how does a startup hinged on the speculative concept of drone delivery navigate its way through a technological and regulatory minefield? We spoke with Sweeney on his plans to take Flirtey global.
"Australia has a great history of developing new technologies and taking them overseas to new markets," says Sweeney. "We will still be based in Sydney, but expand to have an office on campus at the University of Nevada in Reno, with access to its indoor flight test facilities."
Part of this arrangement will see Flirtey recruit graduates from the Unmanned Autonomous Systems minor at the UNR's College of Engineering. There is more at play than scooping up bright-eyed young roboticists, however, with the university situated in one of the few areas in the US for which drone testing has been approved.
"Congress had mandated that outdoor drone activity be rolled out by September 2015," says Sweeney. "But because the FAA is experiencing significant delays, their strategy is to set up six test sites in the meantime, and we'll be located in one of them."
Sweeney anticipates that delivery drones are still several years away, but he doesn't intend to sit around waiting for the red tape to clear. With an office on campus at Reno and access to the university's indoor flight test facilities, he will set about developing the technology behind Flirtey's drones in preparation for when (and if) the market opens up.
"We developed the first generation of our drones in Australia," he says. "Now we will focus on three main areas of development: safety, range and payload. The other benefit of expanding is Nevada's weather. With the desert and snow in the winter we'll be able to really take our weather testing to the next level."
As the company prepares to carve out a foothold in the US, it is looking to plant the other one a little closer to home. New Zealand, Sweeney says, has the most liberal aviation laws in the world, a perfect setting for an emerging drone manufacturer looking to put its machines to the test.
"New Zealand does seem to be ahead of the curve," he says. "We've been in dialogue with the aviation authority and also Airshare, a hub for UAVs in New Zealand which looks at ways to integrate commercial drones with other aircraft."
The Airshare system promotes a strict set of rules for flying drones in New Zealand, among them: flying no higher than 400 ft (122 m), not flying at night, keeping the drone within your line of sight and not flying within a 4 km (2.5 mi) of an airfield. It will also collate flight paths logged by drone pilots and make them visible to traditional air traffic control.
"We've agreed to be one of the first companies to test out this system," explains Sweeney. "Our aim is to establish a safety track record and history of secure commercial delivery of items such as urgent parcels, medical supplies and even fast food."
While it may be the first to trial New Zealand's Airshare system, Flirtey is not alone in testing the waters on drone delivery. Amazon unmasked plans for its 30 minute PrimeAir deliveries last year, while it emerged last week that Google has also been developing an autonomous delivery system, dubbed Project Wing.