Drone delivery is here. Right now. Live. For real. And it’s awesome.

Next-day delivery? Same-day delivery? Super-lame. What about 5-minute delivery?

That’s Manna from heaven … or manna from drones. Manna is running autonomous drone delivery right now in Galway, Ireland, and has the licenses in place to take the service across Europe and maybe Canada. This tiny startup is beating Amazon to the immediate delivery punch in Europe.

And the US? That’s a problem: regulation is way, way, way behind.

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, I chat with Bobby Healy, CEO of Manna, about drone delivery, how it works, what it’s accomplishing right now, and how soon you might see it in your backyard. Plus, what drone delivery as a service means for the future of commerce.

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Read: Manna is running live drone delivery in Galway, Ireland

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier:  So it seems like magic … food from the air. Maybe even, manna from heaven. We’re talking about a drone delivery service. Uber Eats in the air, get your food piping hot in just three minutes.

No, it’s not marketing hype. There is an actual drone delivery service operating today in Galway, Ireland. It’s called Manna and we’re chatting with the CEO, Bobby Healy. Welcome, Bobby! 

Bobby Healy: Nice to be here. 

John Koetsier: Great to have you. Give us the lowdown. What is the service? What do you do? 

Bobby Healy, CEO of Manna

Bobby Healy, CEO of Manna

Bobby Healy: Yeah. So we’re a delivery service using drones. We deliver everything from everywhere to everyone in suburban communities. We’re based in between Ireland and the U.K., and it really is a simple principle, right?

Carry things around the last mile — or in our case, three to five miles — and very, very quickly as the crow flies and essentially, totally disrupt the last mile, changing economics for food delivery companies, for restaurants, for pharmacies … you name it, we’re flying it in our town now in Galway, as you said, just over 10,000 people. 

John Koetsier: You know, not just the economics, but also the usability, right? I don’t get my pizza delivered ’cause I like it super piping hot. And so I’m always showing up at the pizza parlor and getting it as it comes out, and taking it home, right, because I know that the deliveries, they do five or six deliveries and I might be last and it may not be super hot — but you got three minutes there.

Now you said ‘as the crow flies,’ but these drones are seriously fast, might be more like the eagle flying. 

Bobby Healy: Yeah, or a Sparrow Hawk, more common in Ireland.

But yeah, I mean, when you can get products to consumers in, as we do, our medium flight time in Galway is two minutes, 40 seconds. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Bobby Healy: So, that means from takeoff to landing the product on your doorstep, it’s two minutes, 40 seconds. So we only need to think about prep time and getting the product loaded onto the aircraft as that random number, right, that you are uncomfortable with.

There are a lot of consumers, you know, if they’re using food delivery by road, they think, ‘Yeah, it might be 20 minutes. Might be an hour though, and I might be batched. I might be in the box with three other people’s meals and my driver might be waiting for my hamburger and fries outside the restaurant.’ All of that goes away with point-to-point drone delivery.

It’s just so much more efficient — because of the advantage that it has, obviously — but we’re delivering coffees. We’re delivering burgers and fries. We’re delivering ice cream, broccoli, melon, you name it, we’re delivering it. And it arrives perfect, you know, piping hot coffee, foam intact, little design on top of the foam still intact.

And that’s viable; it’s viable at scale. It’s far cheaper to do and it uses far less people to do than using the road.

John Koetsier: Well, let’s talk about these drones then. Are they custom drones or did you make them yourself? Did you buy them off the shelf? How fast are they? And what capacity do they have? 

Bobby Healy: Yeah. So yeah, we design them. We actually have two different types of drone now. So we design them and we build them. They’re aviation-grade drones, which means, it’s a fancy way of saying they’re extremely safe.

So, you know, we’ve flown 45,000 flights now. We’re now doing 2,000 or 3,000 test flights a week. We’re flying 100 deliveries a day. And it’s not your typical drone, so it’s not the fastest. So we top out at about 50 miles an hour, and that’s perfectly fast when you’re going in a straight line, but it’s designed for safety, right?

So it’s got three flight computers. It’s got three of everything: three compasses, three GPS, three lidars … everything on it there’s three of, and any one of those stacks can fly the aircraft on its own. So, forget about how cool looking the aircraft looks, or how fast, or any of those things don’t matter, because at scale we need to be flying between one and 10 million flights a day, at scale. That’s the type of volume that we need to be thinking about.

And you don’t do that with an off-the-shelf drone, you know, DJI or one of those guys; they’re beautiful, fantastic drones, but you couldn’t use them at scale. 

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

John Koetsier: Amazing. You remind me of Arthur C. Clarke, the Ramans always did things in three, right? So [laughing] … perfect. 

Bobby Healy: There’s an argument that says two flight computers is more than enough, right, but you don’t know, each flight computer doesn’t know which one is crazy, right?

And when there’s three though, it’s a vote. And that’s the way aviation works, right, you have three and you know the anomaly by measuring the other two, right? So you can’t do it with two. 

John Koetsier: Wow. Now what about, do you have control software for these? Are these remotely piloted? Are they economists? What’s the situation there? 

Bobby Healy: Yeah, no, they’re fully autonomous. So the process is: we get the order; the order gets processed; the restaurant or the partner handles a bag with a QR code on it; our teams scan that QR code; system tells them which aircraft to load on; the product goes into a kind of a cassette thing which is it’s a big box, which is also the battery; we load it on the aircraft and stand back.

And everything else, the aircraft comes back after having delivered with no intervention whatsoever. So, fully autonomous, and it takes us about 30 to 60 seconds to turn around the aircraft. So we get about seven or eight deliveries per hour— per aircraft, I should say.

And the process is: aircraft goes straight up in the air with the cargo; it goes more or less in a straight line to your home; when we get there — so when you order, we essentially let you drop a pin to say where would you like the product dropped, and we’ll use combination computer vision and people to verify that pin drop. And once we’re happy with that, that’s your registered delivery address.

So the aircraft goes about 150 feet to 200 feet to your home; when it gets there, it will start to descend and it’ll start to scan using lidar and radar to make sure everything’s cool underneath.

We need a two-meter diameter, inanimate flat space to land on or to deliver.

John Koetsier: You won’t give it into my hand, in other words. [laughing]

Bobby Healy: Yeah, no. We could. We could, but we don’t. Like it’s super accurate. So we use RTK, GPS, lidar, and radar; fused them as we’re going down, so we’re absolutely on the dime when we deliver. We’ve delivered on top of cars, on top of trampolines, all sorts of things.

So, like I said, flat and inanimate, it’s all we need.

And people have asked us to deliver into crazy stupid places to try and trick us. So it’s really interesting. So the real difficult problem to solve is one that you wouldn’t think of. So all of that is autonomous, right?

And a nice thing about autonomous in the air is that you err on the side of safety, always. So if you don’t understand the environment, unlike autonomous vehicles where you have to have perception, you have to understand in order— because you’re forced to make a decision. When you’re in the air, you’re not, right? So if you don’t understand what’s happening, or the software doesn’t understand, or there’s an anomaly of any type, you just go home.

You know, you just literally retrace your footsteps using gyros and accelerometers to reverse what you just did, and that works super safe. And so it’s much — it sounds strange — but it’s much easier to have autonomous aircraft than autonomous cars.

John Koetsier: That is really interesting, because of course you’re navigating a 3D space versus a 2D space. So it seems more difficult in that scenario, but you have safe places to go up to. Do you have a human pilot sort of standing by that, you know, the software can put up its hand and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an issue’ and a human pilot can kind of figure it out?

Bobby Healy: Yeah, so it’s event-driven. So, one of our pilots — it’s all centralized, so the aircraft has twin LTE modems on it; so it has three connections, three operator connections. And so we have essentially, if something happens that the aircraft can’t understand, so let’s say it completely loses GPS or for whatever reason, like GPS jamming, something like that — which is a thing by the way — then our pilot will get a notification.

They don’t fly the aircraft, like they can’t, you know, it would never be viable to fly an aircraft reliably at a distance like that. So the pilot can do certain things; so they can deploy a parachute, they can land the aircraft in situ, or they can tell it to go home or to a rally point.

So what I mean by rally point is when the aircraft takes off and flies, it’s got its flight path, but along that flight path we have pre-programmed rally points that in the event of, let’s say the main battery dies or we lose more than one motor — anything that means that it’s too risky to come home — we just go to rally points. And a rally point could be a flat roof somewhere that’s safe, that we know is clear, or it can be vegetation, trees, bushes, you name it. So that’s, the pilot can make those decisions, but can’t really control the aircraft; that’s not viable at scale. But certainly from a safety perspective, it works really well.

John Koetsier: Well this certainly seems like the future, and it’s super interesting and it’s amazing. I mean, you order your food; three minutes later, there it arrives piping hot; the drone drops it down from the sky; you take it inside, you eat. That’s all wonderful and good.

Now you’re in one spot, in Galway, Ireland. You’re doing lots of tests elsewhere. You just raised $25 million from a variety of venture capitalists. What’s the vision here? Talk us out two, three years. Where are you? How are you going to expand this so that I can do it in my home near Vancouver, Canada, and somebody else can do it in San Francisco, and somebody in Azerbaijan can do it? 

Bobby Healy: Canada, actually, will be getting it sooner rather than later … a very forward-thinking regulator in Canada.

So, the way we look at it is, the platform is not ready for scale yet. We’re not a million miles away, but we want to get this perfect. So that means half a million flights, something like that; uneventful flights, as we call them. When we do that we feel we’re ready to scale, we’re safe to scale, and also we have an efficient operation.

So our plan is we have another town now that we’re going to in Ireland of about 40,000 people. We’re going to aim to do between 500 and 1,000 deliveries a day in that town. And that lets us kind of stretch our legs and lets us just, you know, we’re doing 100 deliveries a day now. So, 5 to 10 times that is a nice order of magnitude more; not more complex, but more difficult. So, we feel that, we do that town of 40,000 and we’re happy with it, then we’ll roll it out across Ireland all of next year, which is addressable about a million people we’ll try to deliver to across next year.

And then, again, you know, obviously you can hear from my accent … I’m Irish, right, I happen to be in Ireland. We have absolute ambitions to roll this out across the entire world, including the USA, but Europe will be the first region to scale.

And the reason is, quite simply, there’s half a billion people here and we have a regulatory framework that’s very, very clear about requirements on companies like us and on timeline. So, for example, we already got our European-wide license from EASA, the European regulator. So what we’re doing in Ireland now, in theory, we could roll that out across Europe … but we’re not ready, and $25 million ain’t gonna power a rollout across Europe.

So, but definitely, start of ’23 we’ll be really going throttle up. We’ll have raised hopefully our Series B or bigger, and we will be intending to roll it out across multiple European markets. I can’t say … the USA is the one obviously we think about the most; it’s by far the biggest market for what we do, but it’s difficult to see when or what the timeline looks like there. It’s just a more complex  regulatory market. It might be, it might catch up with or even overtake Europe, or it might be behind. Either way, our platform, you’re going to see drone delivery as normal as riding a bike across Europe over the coming— maturing in the coming five years. 

John Koetsier: What’s it look like to open up a new market? Do you send drones around mapping the area from the sky and building up sort of a 3D map of the space, and knowing where there’s safe spots and all that stuff? What’s that look like? 

Bobby Healy: Yeah. That’s exactly what we do. In fact, we send up drones and we do a high-res lidar map of the area, and that takes us a couple of days. And that map essentially gives us our elevations and our objects in that area that we’re flying over.

Nice thing about it is it respects people’s privacy, because obviously it’s lidar, it’s point cloud, there’s nothing discernible of a private nature. And again, that’s a massive topic, a delicate topic for what we’re doing.

So we scan the area with lidar; that gives a really, really nice way to identify where is there a gigantic antenna, where is there vegetation, and all these things that we like to know about. Now we’re usually high enough to avoid antennas or power lines, all that stuff, so that we don’t have to know where they are, but it’s more for emergency handling. We’d like to know where all the trees are, and trees are great objects to hit if you need to, if you have an emergency. We like to know where the water is, things like that. But we still will classify everything, but there’s still a human element to it, where we’ll still get out there in cars, drive around, looking at the space, but it doesn’t take long.

So if I take a town of 50,000-100,000 people, I wouldn’t expect it to take more than a week or two to be — once we pick our location — a week or two to put the infrastructure in. We have some comms on there, radio comms for short range stuff, and we have some RTK; so base stations for our location- sensitive aircraft.

Other than that, it’s rock and roll, and you know, we — it’s viral product, right? So, we only have to put a sticker on the front of the store to say, ‘Next time you come by, why don’t you order drone delivery?’ and bang, everyone in the town is stampeding to our website to get the thing, right. It’s ’cause it’s such a circus that it’s viral.

So it’s not, we don’t have this slow burn of, you know, let’s introduce it and push and market and all that stuff; it literally … it’s overnight.

So, that’s good and bad. We have to be very ready for that because we don’t want to disappoint everyone when we switch on, because we have a certain amount of throughput. And the way we look at it is what’s normal run rate for 100,000 people? Well, we know what that looks like with today’s food delivery, right? We know penetration rates; we know repeat rates. So we know what those numbers look like.

But, if you introduce 3-minute delivery and it’s delivering into your backyard or your lawn or whatever, there’s no people involved. It’s lightning fast and ultra reliable. Literally you’re going to know within the second when, once your food is prepped, you’re going to get a notification saying, ‘We’ll be there in 2 minutes, 52 seconds’ … and they’re rarely late, right? So, that changes things. It’s not just a circus, it’s not just entertaining. But you can now rely on getting things around and that changes commerce in a community.

So like the local book store in Galway where we’re operating, they’ve got a better offer to their customers than Amazon has, already. And this is the west coast of Ireland, right?

John Koetsier: Yes. [laughing & crosstalk]

“What are you talking about, same day delivery? Same minute delivery.” 

Bobby Healy: Yeah. Well see the thing is, think about it, right? So it’s physical goods now can be digital storefronts for any vendor. So think about what that does for communities, for local businesses, all of that, right? That’s one thing.

And then the second part is what would you do if you had, as a consumer, how would you behave, right? What would change? It’s no longer, ‘I want a pizza. I’m prepared to wait 20 minutes and then I start to get angry.’ It’s now, literally, everything within five miles is reachable in less than five minutes. I can literally buy it and it arrives in less than five minutes.

So what happens is, as we see, people are ordering coffee and croissants every single day in this town. And it’s no longer for the excitement of seeing a drone showing up; it’s because they get beautiful hot coffee with a beautiful, fresh pastry instead of going to the coffee shop. We’ve had orders for broccoli, for melon, for nappy cream, for books, mobile— we have a deal with Samsung where we’re delivering for the Samsung store online and we’re delivering mobile phones to people.

Like, in what world would that happen? So it’s just, we don’t know in the end what normal will go to, but we know that normal will be a big uptick in demand for online purchasing.

John Koetsier: What’s really interesting to me in all this, is that you’re moving fast, you’re doing something very, very cool, but you’re also operating within the regulatory framework as we already talked about. And that’s interesting because we have the historical precedents of like an Uber, which would just come in like the typical bull in a china shop and just barge into markets and there you go, and we’re bringing this in; don’t care what regulations you have, don’t care what it looks like.

You’re doing this carefully and you have to, of course, ’cause you’re in the air. But you’re also doing it in a way that then becomes scalable really quickly because you have regulatory compliance.

Bobby Healy: Yeah.

John Koetsier: That’s really interesting to see. 

Bobby Healy: It’s, you know, that’s absolutely a fact. And there’s a number of things too that one is: we’d be arrested, in this case. It wouldn’t be, it’s not the kind of thing where you get into an argument with council. They’ll just arrest you because it’s the air.

So even if I wanted to be Travis [Kalanick], I couldn’t be.

But the other part is actually — and this is often lost, certainly with the VC community — we need to be the best citizen that there is in terms of doing business. Because when we bring this product into a community of 50,000-100,000 people, we should respect that that is their airspace. And while we’re making money out of it, we are bringing them a lot while we’re doing it, but we can’t just assume that everybody there is absolutely delighted to see us flying through their airspace.

And we have to respect that there’s differences, right, even though most people want us, there are people that don’t. So you don’t force this down communities necks. You go in — I won’t say in a consultative way, but in a respectful way — and that means following the law, following regulations.

For example, noise regulations, we respect them and we make sure that we’re never over whatever the permitted limit is. Privacy, we have no recording equipment whatsoever; we have no customer data whatsoever. All of these things roll up together to say you don’t get to roll out this type of business without having government and local population on your side. So, not an option. 

John Koetsier: Maybe let’s end here. How did you get into this space and why did this interest you particularly?

Bobby Healy: Yeah. So I live five miles outside of Dublin, Dublin city center. Dublin’s a population of just a million and a half people; pretty big town or a small city, and like I said, I’m five miles outside. In Ireland, in Dublin we have Uber Eats, we have Deliveroo, and we have Just Eat.

So, three big food delivery platforms … none of them come to my house, and I only live five miles outside the city center. And the suburb that I live in is about 40,000 people here. That’s 40,000 people that have to drive down to the shop to get their bag of chips, or their pharmacy, or all these things.

And even more so, the local shops, local stores, they’re not viable. It’s not viable to do delivery for a local restaurant; it just costs too much. So I’m sitting in my backyard, a couple glasses of wine, you know, I’m Irish … so I said that my option is to either get in my car and drive with a couple of glasses of wine in me, or it’s to do without the product, or wait an hour for some guy to show at my house, probably with COVID all over his hands.

You know, it’s not a good experience. It’s demand looking for a solution. So that’s one thing, right, is an actual personal need first, you know, a problem solved.

And then the other is, I’m a technology guy. This is not my first rodeo; I’ve built a ton of tech businesses. I also know that as it happens, that there’s a confluence of various different technologies that have matured, that enable and make viable this whole craziness of flying low value products around communities, right?

So, battery technology, machine vision, GPUs, motors, all of these tech — carbon fiber, you know, forming — all of these techs have kind of suddenly come of age. And if you join them all up, you end up with a 30, 40 pound aircraft that can carry around six or seven pounds of cargo and do it for an absolute fraction of the cost of using the road. So you joined those two dots together, you say there’s a $300 billion industry that’s suffering terribly from cost economics, and here’s the technology that can turbocharge it and fix its economics.

It’s exciting. And it’s, you know, we think it’s a trillion dollar industry. It’s a nascent trillion dollar industry that there’s nearly nobody with a solution, so we’re racing to get there. It’s incredibly exciting. 

John Koetsier: You brought up an interesting point. So I’m going to ask a further question here. What’s the cost of drone delivery versus a traditional road-based delivery? Is it a 10X difference? What’s the difference? 

Bobby Healy: Yeah, so that’s a really easy one to answer, right? So, with today’s industry in the suburbs, a typical person can do 1.8 to 2.5 deliveries per hour, right, so that’s the throughput. And that person, whatever they’re paid, if they’re paid $10, $15, whatever it is, divide the cost of that person per hour by that. And in the USA today, it’s costing between $6 and $9 base cost to a platform to move product, to get product from restaurant to the store — or to the house.

So think that key KPI, one person, roughly two orders per hour. One Manna personnel can do 20 deliveries per hour … simple number, right? So our cost is one tenth the cost of using the road. It’s literally that simple.

And we’re doing that today, by the way, this isn’t something like self-driving cars that one day will be great, or autonomous air taxis that one day when the value equation works will be great. We’re doing this right now, today; very busy day in Galway where we’re operating and we’re doing that today. 

John Koetsier: Awesome.

Bobby Healy: Yeah. So, like it’s just shockingly efficient and real. And I often am amazed at how excited people are about mobility or autonomous driving or autonomous air taxis, when actually right in front of everyone’s noses is a trillion dollar industry that’s being born as we speak. 

John Koetsier: And you said it’s a holiday weekend right now in Ireland. So everybody’s ordering their holiday goodies, their barbecue stuff, their— maybe the wine who knows. Thank you so much for taking this time on your holiday weekend, Bobby, really appreciate it. Very cool service and I look forward to drone delivery here, near Vancouver, Canada — very soon. 

Bobby Healy: Thank you very much.

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