Manna, a drone delivery company based in Ireland, has its sights set on U.S. expansion. Because while the Emerald Isle isn’t a bad place to launch a drone delivery company, Manna says the U.S. is its number one target market. And its CEO & Founder, Bobby Healy, told The Drone Girl in an exclusive interview exactly why.
3 reasons why the U.S. is a top target drone delivery market for Manna
Manna launched in 2018 in a small village in Ireland, and has since raised over $35 million in venture capital funding. The company really took off in Ireland after it began delivering medicines and food in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Manna now delivers in two locations in Ireland, where it can serve about 45,000 people and is currently making more than 160 deliveries per day.
But while it has been operational in Ireland, Healy has his sights set abroad. He says the U.S. is actually a top market, and here are three reasons why:
1. Suburbs are key for drone delivery
Early concepts of drone delivery from about 10 years ago suggested drone delivery would primarily happen in cities. We saw art of drones delivering to roof tops on skyscrapers and winding around buildings. Perhaps it fit with the futuristic narrative.
Yet when it came to actual early tests, it was the opposite. Drone delivery primarily was tested in rural — really rural — places. These environments offered minimal risk of GPS loss, had few tall objects to interfere with, and there weren’t many people to worry about flying over.
These days, suburbs are the sweet spot for drone delivery. There’s strong demand and a legitimate use cases. People live far away enough from shipping centers, but not too far.
It contributes to why companies like Google’s drone-delivery focused sister company, Wing, just launched operations in Frisco, which is a Dallas of suburb. Wing has also launched other suburb-minded operations in other countries, like a test to fly merchandise and food from the rooftop of the Grand Plaza Mall in Logan, Australia directly to customers’ homes or other businesses.
And few countries scream suburbs like the U.S. Since 2000, U.S. populations have been increasingly concentrated in suburban counties surrounding the urban core counties of the largest metro areas, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2000, 23% of the total U.S. population resided in large suburban counties. By 2018, that figure rose to 25%.
Meanwhile, rural populations are declining (down to 14% in 2018 versus 16% in 2000), and the share of the nation’s total population residing in the urban core has remained at 31%.
2. There’s less fragmentation
Much of European drone policy is united in many ways (as opposed to varied by individual European country), largely because the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulates many topics around the drone industry. But there is still some level of fragmentation, as most countries have their own individual civil aviation offices that might entail their own sets of drone laws, paperwork or procedures.
And fragmentation goes even beyond policy. Healy pointed out that even language fragmentation poses additional challenges.
3. Americans love online deliveries
This third reason might be the most compelling: Americans love ordering things on their phones and getting them delivered fast.
60% of American consumers order takeout or delivery at least once a week, and a still-impressive 31% of American consumers use third-party food delivery services at least twice a week, according to Fundera.
Plus, increasingly more Americans are adopting online food ordering. In fact, online ordering is growing 300% faster than in-house dining. Meanwhile, prominent American companies like Instacart have primed customers to want food deliveries in 30 minutes or less. And given the high use of such food delivery apps, Americans are familiar with the concept of ordering food through an app already.
“Americans have a very developed, mature understanding of food delivery and takeaway,” Healy said.
So while Americans might have to adjust to the concept of a drone rather than a human delivering their food, the first step of simply ordering food online is far from foreign.
“When we enter the U.S., most people will already expect and understand what delivery is — and most of them are also already understanding of drone delivery.” Healy said.
How will Manna fit in against competitors?
The news that Manna intends to enter the U.S. market comes at a time that many other drone delivery companies are also arriving and expanding.
Just this week, Israel-based Flytrex — which famously ran its tests in Iceland and also operates in North Carolina — announced that it would deliver food from Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy via drone to homes in Granbury, Texas, which is a small town just outside of Dallas-Fort Worth.
And then there’s one of the biggest players in the drone delivery space, Wing, which recently crossed an incredible 200,000 delivery milestone. Wing also has operations in Texas through a partnership with Walgreens. Even Healy referred to Wing with glowing reviews.
“Wing is the gold standard in drone delivery,” he said.
But Manna doesn’t really see the other companies as being competitors in the sense that they’re actually better off if they work together.
“It’s important that all of the companies in this space work together and operate in a way that — at least in the medium term — we are better off cooperating to helping the industry move forward,” he says.
What makes Manna different?
Manna drones fly at an altitude of 50-80 meters and they fly at a speed of over 60kph. But other than regional availability, why should consumers choose to have items delivered via Manna versus any other drone delivery service?
Healy said a big reason their service is different is because you don’t need to have a huge backyard to use them, as is the case with many other drone delivery services.
Manna requires just a two yard diameter (which is about one-and-a-half meters) of flat space at 80-90 feet altitude in order to operate. For context, that’s just about one large stride for a person of average height. Meanwhile, many other companies will only deliver to areas where homes have larger yards for landing or placing items.
“We’re delivering to dense suburbs with small backyards,” Healy said. “As great as Wing is, they require big backyards to deliver to.”
With Manna, you drop a pin where you want the item to be delivered. When the drone makes the delivery, it’ll go to where your pin is, but it won’t fully accept your selection.
The drone uses scanning lidar to analyze the area you’ve selected for dropoff. If it doesn’t perceive it as safe enough, the drone will move two or three yards to the truly safest place. Healy said this is common in situations such as if one household member selected the driveway as the delivery spot, but then another member of the household parked the car there without them knowing. Or, in other situations, kids could run underneath the drone at that moment. The drone won’t fly over those situations.
Healy said Manna’s ideal place to land is on a trampoline.
“We have lots of homes where they deliver onto a trampoline,” he said. “A trampoline is perfect. It tends to be in the middle of the garden anyway.”
Manna’s expansion plans
Healy says he hopes to be running drone delivery tests in the U.S. by July 2022. While he wouldn’t share exactly where, he said to expect it to be somewhere on the East Coast.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, Manna said it still expects things to move along faster than they’re going in the U.S. Healy said he expects full scale European rollouts in 2023, though he said the U.S. timeline of implementing a full delivery operation beyond just test flights will likely be behind that, suggesting 2024 at the earliest.
While the U.S. is an excellent customer base to launch drone delivery, Healy said that there are U.S. regulatory hurdles to overcome.
“In Europe, the regulation is already written, ready and waiting,” he said. “Europe is really in a position to scale in the beginning of 2023, while the U.S. is still going through a process of evaluating the approaches and getting aligned with the stakeholders.”
Manna designs and builds its own drones, as well as many of the components. While it currently uses 200-300 gram, light scanning lidar, the company plans to switch to eventually using stereoscopic RGB to reduce costs as it’s cheaper, lighter and use less power. (The reason to not use it is now is it doesn’t function as well when there’s heavy rain, fog or darkness, but that could change with improved tech.)
From test to operational in the U.S.
Healy said he expects to be in the U.S. by the third quarter of 2022. At the start, it’ll just be test flights using early-adopter customers, both to help Manna get acquainted, as well as getting neighbors aware and onboard.
“Then, it’ll become viral very quickly,” he said. “Once they have our app, it’s easy to register. Put in your credit card, and you’ll be ready to rock and roll.”
Manna currently has partnerships with Coca Cola, Ben & Jerry’s and Samsung, and the company plans to continue making deliveries of products from those brands in the future in the U.S.
“In general, the U.S. is the number one adopter of drone delivery,” Healy said. “It’s the perfect storm. It’s the best place to launch a drone delivery service.”
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