Every day, the drones of Manna Drone Delivery deliver meals and groceries to customers in two suburbs of the Irish capital, Dublin. After a successful start in Ireland, Manna is working on expanding to six other European Countries, starting in 2023. In an exclusive interview, Manna founder Bobby Healy takes a closer look at the concerns of Dutch regulators and citizens.
“Come to Ireland and see what we do. We get almost no complaints.”
Food from heaven
Manna Drone Delivery was founded in 2019 by Bobby Healy. The company focuses on realizing commercial drone delivery services. Backed by investments of more than $30 million, the startup was able to develop a drone that can deliver orders of a few kilos to addresses within a few miles of the take-off location. Once at its destination, the order is delivered to the ground by means of a winch. For example in a garden or in a driveway. The drone hovers at a height of about 15 meters, out of reach of people and animals on the ground.
In early 2020, Manna Drone Delivery started work at a campus south of Dublin. Later, the suburb of Balbriggan was added. The company has now performed tens of thousands of flights, without any significant incidents. According to Manna, one employee can oversee several drones and therefore realize twenty deliveries per hour, ten times as much as a delivery person can achieve on the road in the same time frame. Ultimately, this would make drone delivery not only faster and cheaper but also more environmentally friendly than road-based delivery methods. And also with less congestion on the roads as a result.
Manna Drone Delivery first went live in Ireland
Initially, Manna focused on realizing drone delivery in Ireland. To this end, the company worked closely with the Irish aviation authority IAA. Because safety comes first. Just like an airline, Manna must also meet strict requirements in terms of procedures, airworthiness of aircraft, and training of personnel. After all, they fly over populated areas. “And a business can only be built if the public trusts us,” said Healy.
Currently, Manna operates in two Dublin suburbs, with a total population of 45,000. Hundreds of customers use the drone delivery service every day. They place their orders via the Manna Drone Delivery app at affiliated restaurants, branches of Ben & Jerry’s, or supermarket chain Tesco. The order will be delivered within a few minutes. An additional advantage of test runs in Ireland is that the weather is often bad. “If we can make it work here, it will work anywhere in the world,” Healy often remarks during presentations.
International expansion of Manna Drone Delivery
That “all over the world” is not meant as a joke. At the end of 2022, Manna will serve an even larger suburb of Dublin. International expansion is on the agenda from 2023. Initially to 70 delivery areas in six other European countries, and also to the US in the same period.
Healy does not want to say which EU countries are involved, but the Netherlands is almost certainly not part of that list. Although uniform European regulations for drones have been in existence for some time now, there are major differences in how vigorously the various EU Member States implement them. The Netherlands is certainly not leading the way in this regard.
You may not be able to imagine it, but it is inevitable that drone delivery will also be offered as a new delivery method in the Netherlands at some point. Maybe because of Manna, but there are also other players gearing up to offer drone delivery. The fact that the EU sees a lot of potential in drone services and therefore encourages innovations such as drone delivery. As a result, the lower part of the airspace below 120 meters is commercialized.
But what about security, nuisance, and privacy? Why is the Netherlands currently lagging behind when it comes to drone flights at greater distances (BVLOS)? What about the cost per delivery? To answer these and other questions, we conducted an exclusive interview with Manna founder Bobby Healy.
Before we start with the interview… What was the last thing you actually delivered by drone?
“I have NEVER ordered – we don’t cover my house – but our NEXT Dublin location will be reaching my house and my regular order will be coffee and scone. Every morning.”
What is the maximum distance that can be controlled from a hub? And the maximum delivery weight? And the average delivery time after take-off?
“We think a radius of 3-5 km is perfect, if we assume rain and 15 meters/second wind. Weight 3.5 kg and content 30 liters. The delivery time depends on the distance, but we currently fly up to 25 m/s (airspeed), so our average delivery time (outbound flight) is 2m40s.”
Assuming your drones don’t fly higher than 120 meters in uncontrolled airspace, how do you avoid airproxes or even collisions with other aircraft such as (recreational) drones, SAR helicopters, hot air balloons and other low-flying aircraft that do not see Manna’s drones well and/or not disclose positions to your control room?
“We use observers in the city for things like hot air balloons and use ADS-B for cooperative aircraft. Ultimately, electronic conspicuity will be required on a large scale and we believe the U-Space standards respond well to that.”
What will UTM/U-space enable that is not possible now?
“Legal responsibility clearly defined, and harmonious, cooperative integration between traditional aviation and our industry.”
Manna Drone Delivery operates in the Specific Category, if I have it. Do all operations in the 6 new countries fall under your LUC? In which risk category do you operate?
“Correct. Our LUC [light UAS operator certificate, the most comprehensive license form within the Specific category] covers our current operation across the EU. Currently our operation falls under SAIL level II. Once we receive our EASA design verification (estimated by the end of 2022), we will move to SAIL IV and operate BVLOS in 2023.”
How would you describe the mentality of the national aviation authorities of the six EU countries into which you are expanding? As a drone delivery service provider, what do you need from a CAA to operate?
“For the aviation authorities we are in talks with, we see a very positive commitment and a willingness to learn from what we have achieved in Ireland with the Irish Aviation Authority.”
Here in the Netherlands, the BVLOS operation remains a major challenge. Everyone seems to be waiting for U-space. Even trials of medical delivery drones are only allowed in temporary corridors. People seem very risk averse. What would your advice be to our ILT?
“Come to Ireland and see what we do. There is no need to fear BVLOS if it is performed by responsible operators and with certified technology. And don’t start in urban environments.”
What factors are taken into account when Manna designs possible flight paths? Or are flight paths dynamically generated based on the drop-off location only?
“We generate them dynamically (see image below) and randomize certain parts to avoid ‘highways’. We have simple heuristics that allow us to minimize disruption and avoid flying over schools or places with a very high population density. Beyond that, we fly as the crow flies to optimize for energy.”
What is Manna’s response to people who are concerned about their privacy or noise pollution?
“We get virtually no complaints, and the complaints we get are from people who simply don’t want robots flying around. Noise is not an issue with our drones, nor is privacy, as we do not have any equipment on board that records data, apart from the flight logs. And we do not collect customer data.
We allow people to voice their concerns through our app and on social media, but as I said – a total of less than 10 complaints serving a population of 45,000 residents of the two cities in which we operate.”
Do you foresee a role for local/municipal authorities, regarding drone delivery? What role(s) would that be?
“Yes, local authorities are stakeholders who represent the community. Currently, Manna Drone Delivery has an excellent relationship with the local authorities of neighborhoods we fly to and they provide an important platform for discussion with residents prior to our rollout. Usually it is the local authorities who ask us to operate in their area, and that is driven by the (correct) belief that we bring many jobs with us.”
During a recent webinar, you mentioned that some people just don’t want drones flying over their heads or houses, period. Do you understand the concerns of these people? What would you like to say to them?
“That’s right. Of course they have the right to complain, and we respect and try to allay their concerns, but the fact is that 98% of residents and virtually ALL local businesses want drone delivery. Progress is never embraced by 100% of the population. Most importantly, we are transparent and respect everyone’s opinion and provide as much information and transparency as is practical.”
Can you tell us what the cost per delivery is at the moment? And what are the costs per delivery in a few years?
“What I can tell you is that we are currently losing money on every delivery, but we do have a clear path (after design verification) to a profitable service, and we expect to reach profitability for the business by 2023.
We currently charge about 4 euros for most deliveries and 1 euros for deliveries of milk and other daily necessities. In the longer term, we expect drone delivery to become part of most people’s daily lives and that will be much more cost-effective (and time-saving) than road delivery.”
Flash delivery seems to be the next big trend in some EU countries. But there are already many concerns about their bike couriers and dark shops. Do you think drone delivery is the ultimate enabler for companies like Gorillas, Zapp and Getir?
“100% yes. With our service, all of these businesses are becoming viable in suburbs – which most are not now.”
Let us know in the comments below what you think about Manna Drone Delivery. We are curious to hear your thoughts.
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