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Flirtey Drone’s First Slurpee Delivery is No Big Deal

We came across a number of articles in popular media outlets this past week that wrote about how an Australian drone company called Flirtey  has  apparently been delivering Slurpees for 7-11. In researching Flirtey, it seems like a great deal of their “achievements” are around events that seem grander than they actually are. Now we’re not dismissing Flirtey as a contender in the drone delivery space, we’re simply saying that just because a company can deliver an object from point A to point B, it doesn’t mean that they’ve accomplished anything that significant.

The big news came this week when 7-11 and Flirtey conducted a single delivery which consisted of 2 one-mile flights between 7-11 and someone’s house leading the press to issue headlines such as the following:

What exactly did they beat Amazon to the punch with here? They flew a drone which took two trips and delivered Slurpee drinks, a chicken sandwich, donuts, hot coffee and 7-Select candy into one person’s backyard. The whole affair implied that somehow 7-11 is now going to begin delivering slurpees by drone when in fact that is far from the truth. 7-11 even used the opportunity to get some publicity by making the following statement in a recent press release highlighting the “achievement”:

This delivery is the first time a U.S. customer has received a package to their home via drone, representing a historic milestone in both U.S. and global commerce. The delivery was conducted in celebration of the convenience store chain’s 89th birthday.

They conducted a single delivery as a publicity stunt on their 89th birthday. It hardly spells the beginning of 7-11 delivering now by drones. In another instance this year, a Flirtey drone flew three 3-minute flights and delivered 10 pounds of medicine from an airbase to a clinic, showing “the potential for using drones to deliver goods to remote areas“. That’s a great proof of concept and all but Matternet has actually been doing this since 2011. Last month Flirtey conducted the “first domestic ship-to-shore drone delivery” which involved delivering a drone to a ship with some supplies and having the ship send the drone back with a return delivery.

In another instance this year, Flirtey said that it completed the first “federally sanctioned” delivery to a U.S. urban area without the need for a human to steer the drone. The half-a-mile drone flight resulted in a delivery being left at an uninhabited house leaving one to think that this was one of the stipulations required by the FAA to run the test, in which case we’d be much more impressed seeing a delivery or two to a proper inhabited urban area. Here’s what ZDNet stated about the event:

In an uninhabited residential setting in Hawthorne, Nevada, the company successfully delivered a package that included bottled water, emergency food and a first aid kit by drone. The test was performed at one of six FAA-designated Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Sites, and the Flirtey operation is investigating rescue and crisis response in disaster-prone areas.

Calling a drone flight “FAA approved” when you’re conducting it in an “FAA-designated drone testing area” seems a bit misleading. Nonetheless, Flirtey has managed to raise $3.9 million from investors that include Qualcomm and is posturing itself as a viable competitor to much biggest companies that are exploring drone delivery like Google and Amazon.

It seems like every single article about Flirtey seems to emphasize the words “FAA approved” as if Flirtey is enjoying some special privilege. This is not the case. Just last month, the FAA finalized the “first operational rules (PDF) for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or “drones”), opening pathways towards fully integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace“. This set of rules applies to all drone operators regardless of size, the key rule being that you need to keep the drone within the visual line-of-sight of the pilot.

Flirtey can conduct as many automated flights as they want, but they still have to comply with the same rules that made Amazon complain last year, mainly that the drone has to remain within the operator’s sight. That’s what makes these “historic flights” seem like publicity stunts more than anything. The CEO made the statement at the beginning of this year in an article by Australia Limited:

“New Zealand has the most liberal regulation around UAVs in the world. Since the early days of Flirtey we’ve done lots of our field testing there,” he says. “We’ve partnered with a courier company called Fastway. We’re now planning on rolling out a commercial drone delivery service throughout New Zealand.”

So while you may think that Flirtey has “beat Amazon and Google to the punch” with all their recent achievements, in fact they don’t have any competitive advantage in the U.S. market and are still stuck with the same restrictions that prevent all the other players from launching drone delivery services. Given the current regulatory requirements for drones, can you really afford to have an operator watching every single slurpee you deliver? Flirtey has a much better chance of success with their efforts to enter the New Zealand market.

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