Drone delivery still hovers on the horizon, but a Bend company hopes to generate some buzz soon


With all the news about supply chain issues, you might be wondering how to shop online on time. If only the promised future of aerial drone delivery could come true in the upcoming holiday shopping season.

Sorry to burst your bubble. To quote science fiction writer William Gibson, “The future is already here, it’s just not distributed very evenly.”

A venture-backed startup has opened a factory in Bend, Oregon to build delivery drones. Corn Volansi Inc. flying machines will not bring you gifts. They focus on high-margin business-to-business use cases, such as the delivery of spares and medications.

Volansi executives Mike Jackson, left, and Ahmad Ziada at the nearly year-old drone delivery company’s Bend, Oregon manufacturing facility.

Tom Banse / NW News Network

Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos planted the idea of ​​drone delivery in the minds of many consumers in 2013. That’s when Bezos went on CBS 60 minutes to unveil his company’s prototype Prime Air drones. This created quite a buzz, and not just because of the blades of the electric octocopter.

“I know this sounds like science fiction. It is not, ”Bezos told correspondent Charlie Rose. “He drops your package; come and get your package. We can do a half hour delivery. “

Bezos predicted that this ability could become a reality by 2018-19, but that turned out to be overly optimistic. Amazon has been fairly cautious about its drone development program and through a spokesperson on Tuesday he declined to give an update on the current situation.

Other large companies such as Walmart, UPS, FedEx and Google parent alphabet Are also getting into drone delivery, but they are limited to preliminary testing in the United States due to ever-changing regulations.

At the same time, investors are supporting a whole bunch of startups with delivery drones. One of them, Volansi, opened an assembly line in Bend over the past year.

Vice President of Production and Maintenance Ahmad Ziada gave a rare glimpse of the spotless fabrication shop earlier this month.

“We’re building here between five and ten a month. Our capacity is ten because of the people we have, not because of anything else,” Ziada said of the growing operation. Bend, who hired around 45 workers.

Behind him shone an eye-catching row of fully electric, winged VOLY C10 autonomous planes. They squeeze lunchbox-sized storage boxes under their bellies. Volansi’s mid-size vertical take-off and landing drones can carry up to 10 pounds over a distance of 50 miles.

Volansi is also making a larger, longer-range drone model at a facility near its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area. The VOLY M20 can carry up to 20 pounds of cargo as well as a sensor payload. It is equipped with a gas-electric hybrid propulsion.

As for the cost? “We’re still trying to figure that out,” Ziada said on tour.

The small business won’t try to compete with e-commerce giants like Amazon or Walmart in household delivery. Vice President of Global Operations Mike Jackson said Volansi is tackling different markets. He mentioned the delivery of cargo for the military and the shuttle of spare parts for commercial customers in construction, mining and oil and gas. Another promising proposition is the delivery of drugs or disaster relief supplies.

“We don’t necessarily go to a neighborhood,” Jackson said. Instead, Volansi’s drones could fly from a factory or warehouse to a construction site. “We will solve and provide value to supply chain issues for our customers,” he said.

Jackson figured that B2B drone delivery would likely get approved sooner, be easier to do, and generate profits faster. This summer, Volansi demonstrated to the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard how he could move small cargoes between two moving ships at sea. separate demonstration with the North Carolina Department of Transportation showed how its drones could deliver vital supplies to the Outer Banks after a disaster, such as a hurricane.

Currently, Volansi does not have clients in the Pacific Northwest. So why did the San Francisco-based company choose Bend for its factory?

Jackson said selection criteria in a nationwide search included availability of talent, cost, proximity to potential suppliers and partners, favorable flight conditions, and quality of life for employees.

“Bend hits the mark on all of them,” Jackson said.

As for when the average consumer can order dinner or gifts and have their purchase delivered quickly by drone, “it’s still going to take a while,” said Patrick Sherman, a Portland-based instructor and drone pilot at Embry Aeronautical University. -Riddle.

“I’m certainly not going to say that we will never have a Christmas present delivered at 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve by a drone, but this is about the most difficult type of operation you can hope to accomplish with a drone, ”Sherman mentioned. “There is so much going on between the take-off point and how it gets to your property. What if your property was surrounded by tall trees? There are so many problems.

Sherman said low-level air traffic control was necessary for delivery drones to fly safely gets a lot of attention, but is “far from being resolved at this stage”. Public acceptance is still unknown. Regulators must also certify the new aircraft and that would help define drone lanes in the sky to reduce conflict.

Sherman and Jackson presented industry developments earlier this month at a drone conference in Bend hosted by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, International Stunts Chapter.

Also at the conference, Olivier Defawe, director of health systems at Seattle-based global health nonprofit VillageReach, described how Africa serves as a proving ground and early adopter of cargo drones. . He said his non-profit organization had teamed up with several different drone companies to show how “two-way drone delivery” could overcome the logistical challenges of delivering perishable vaccines to remote villages and returning to a country. central office with laboratory samples.

Defawe said VillageReach, with outside sponsorship, has supported vaccination campaigns and blood and drug delivery trials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Malawi, Mozambique and the Dominican Republic. He said that an obstacle to wider adoption of drone delivery was the “big black box” of whether the cost per flight will be affordable in the developing world. A cost study in which VillageReach is involved is expected to be published next March.

“It’s a long journey towards sustained operation,” Defawe concluded.

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