Flytrex, a maker of drone tech for the consumer market, has launched a new drone designed to deliver items including -- if the promotional photos are an accurate representation -- a cold beer. Note to editors: I think I finally get what the drone hype is all about.
"Delivery is one of the possible things you can do with Sky, and it's the thing that makes the most noise," Flytrex co-founder Yariv Bash tells me over the phone when I bring up the photo, "but we're also talking about a cloud-connected drone with web API."
Flytrex has been around for about a year and this is its first foray into ready-to-fly drone hardware. Bash is also a founder of SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit that's competing in the Google Lunar X Prize and has raised more than $50M. He and a friend began playing around with drones and had the idea of trying to gamify the experience. They came up with an idea to create a kind of black box for drones. "You could use it to upload data, see where it's been, what the altitude was," says Bash. "There wasn't anything on the market that you could just plug into your drone."
The black box became Flytrex's first product, and the next logical step was to create a real-time version of the device. The live product became known as Live 3G and is a common add-on for hardcore drone enthusiasts. "With iPhone or Android you can see where you are in real time. So you can fly drones a bit further down the road than line-of-site." Many newer drones offer similar capabilities off-the-shelf. It's a fast-moving market, after all. But the Core 3G remains a robust add-on and is still a big seller for the company.
Flytrex's real breakthrough, though, was realizing that to properly gamify the experience of flying a drone, they had to build a community around flying. With the black box technology sending data to their servers, they decided to start issuing flying badges for various feats -- a badge for reaching a certain altitude, one for flying a minimum distance, etc. Drone enthusiasts took to the idea, and the company embraced an emerging community by logging completed missions on its site and issuing challenges to users.
"We have a lot of interaction with users. It's really become the core part of what we do."
As Bash tells it (he's a good storyteller) he and his friend left the house to fly a drone one day when they realized they had forgotten something. With drone delivery a topic of much speculation in the logistics sector, the pair wondered what it would take to build a drone that could return to the house and carry the item back. Then they started pondering how they would design such a drone from the ground up.
"We thought, 'We have the infrastructure, we've sold thousands of these black box devices, we have users all over the world, why not build a drone designed around the cloud?"
The company is touting the Flytrex Sky, therefore, as more than just a beer delivery device. "It's the first cloud-connected drone," says Bash. The company has created apps to control the drone. One interesting feature, which is geared toward delivery, is the ability to send the drone to a pre-determined location where another user can take over control with their phone, guiding the drone in for a precise landing. The device essentially asks the receiver for permission to land, so there's no loss of control.
The drone can fly about six miles with a light payload, like a smartphone, and can hover about half-an-hour. That means it can easily exceed line-of-sight limits set by agencies such as the FAA in the U.S., which are nonetheless fundamentally difficult to enforce. ("We always tell users to obey all local laws," says Bash.) The maximum payload is about three pounds.
While it's fun to joke about a drone serving as a beer delivery device, Flytrex is turning to its community of users to unlock the real potential of a sub-$600 delivery drone.
"We've already been approached by a few guys in Africa who are thinking of using it to transfer medicine between villages. It's perfect, because there is excellent cell coverage in Africa, which has few overhead phone lines, and medicine is so lightweight."
That sounds like a very worthy use of the technology. In the meantime, I'll be waiting for my flying beer.