Here’s a great example of how sometimes a crisis can speed up the application of new technology. In this case, the Coronavirus outbreak forced Swoop Aero employees to move back from various African countries to their home base in Australia. With their technology, however, they have been able to operate their entire fleet of autonomous drones in Malawi remotely from their Melbourne office.
In an interview with SmartCompany, co-founder Eric Peck says that Swoop Aero, founded in 2017, is an ‘aeromedical logistics’ provider that focuses on last-mile delivery of medical supplies in developing countries.
Peck was a pilot for the Australian Air Force and completed a tour in Afghanistan and Iraq flying a Hercules. After leaving the military, he met his co-founder Josh Tepper, a mechatronics engineer. At one point, the duo was approached and asked if it would be possible to transport chemotherapy medication to patients in rural New South Wales by drone.
“The answer is yes, it’s technically possible,” Peck says. “But what does a system look like that can do that safely, reliably and sustainably, every day of the week?”
Peck and Tepper started working on “what would become an autonomous aviation system” that would allow for medication to be transported reliably, affordably, and safely by drone.
After receiving funding, Swoop Aero secured the first commercial contract in the world to deliver vaccines by drone. According to Peck, their drone delivery business has seen strong revenue growth of almost 50% over the last year and a half.
Coronavirus forces Swoop Aero team back to Australia
Swoop Aero is currently operating its fleet of autonomous drones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and started its operations at two locations in Malawi. As the Coronavirus quickly spread around the world, the Swoop Aero team was forced to turn back to Australia.
“The biggest challenge for us out of the coronavirus pandemic has been the operational logistics of being able to continue our deployments, particularly in emerging countries such as Malawi or Mozambique in Africa,” Peck explains.
Swoop Aero has been able to keep operating their fleet of autonomous drones in Malawi, remotely from their Melbourne office. It is now the first company in the world to run a drone logistics network from outside the country of operation, “which is a big milestone”, according to the founder.
Drone pilots in Melbourne, Australia are now delivering vaccines by drone to remote villages in Malawi. The ability to fly the drones remotely was something that Swoop Aero was hoping to do at some point, but the Coronavirus forced them to make this leap much sooner than expected.
“It’s a real proof-point for us that we’re able to go into a new country and within two months fully establish a local workforce capable of operating on the ground for us,” Peck says. “It’s a testament to the trust we’ve been able to establish with the aviation regulator and the health system in Malawi.”
Peck adds that the fact that the Swoop Aero team is able to work remotely with local governments, health organizations, and a local team and keep the drone delivery service running safely and smoothly is “a 100% proof-point of the system we’ve spent the last two years developing.”
“It proves the aviation system we’ve got in place is deployable, and we can roll that out in other countries.”
Swoop Aero is now working with the Australian aviation authority CASA to get their drone delivery system up and running at home.
“Up until today, our operations in Australia have primarily focused on system validation and R&D, but we’re quickly refocusing,” Peck says. “We have this capability to really quickly respond to government and private healthcare system needs. The last body of work that we’ll be doing before this becomes a reality in Australia is working very closely with CASA, the Australian regulator, to see if we can deploy this quickly but also safely in Australian airspace.”
While some drone operators view the stricter aviation regulations in Australia as a barrier, Peck sees CASA as a partner in deploying a safe and effective drone delivery service. Peck is hopeful that Swoop Aero can begin using its drone delivery services within the next couple of weeks in Australia.
Photo: Swoop Aero