This article was originally posted on TechCrunch by Lora Kolodny in April 2017.
Whether they’re flying pizzas, burritos or medications to customers’ doors, drones for delivery have arrived. Businesses as far-ranging as UPS, Domino’s, Amazon and the hospital group Ticino EOC are testing drones, and, in some cases, have inked deals with drone makers and drone service providers to use them commercially.
Still, most drones built for delivery only fly for a short time and distance. The drones are battery-powered, and one charge doesn’t take them far, though it does help them to operate very quietly and avoid lugging heavy, liquid fuels.
Now, a startup called Volans-i has developed long-range drones for business to business, express deliveries. Late last week, TechCrunch has learned, Volans-i completed a 100-mile demonstration of their drones in Austin, Texas. Specifically, the company flew a 4.7 lb. robotic component to an Applied Materials factory. (The component was a semiconductor wafer-lifting arm.)
Volans-i co-founders Hannan Parvizian and Wesley Guangyuan Zheng said the challenging thing about the flight wasn’t technical, really. It was more a regulatory matter. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial drone operators to keep their aircraft “in the line of sight” of a human pilot, unless they obtain government exemptions.
To comply with those rules, Volans-i had to plan a route where an FAA official and the company’s own employees could chase their drone, from the ground, as it flew out 50 miles and returned, all carrying the manufacturing equipment through the air.
Parvizian said, “In restricted airspace, above private property where we know no other aircraft would come along, we have been able to fly 1,000 miles and carry up to 50 lbs. In unrestricted, or public, airspace, we are only able to demonstrate a shorter point to point delivery so far.”
The startup, which recently graduated from the Y Combinator accelerator, is hoping to change the face of manufacturing with its proprietary UAVs and delivery service. Parvizian said, “We will offer point to point delivery on fixed routes for customers who have a particular pain point around time and costs. These companies have fabs that cost billions to set up! They can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars any hour that one of their machines is not working and they are waiting on a replacement part.”
Being able to ship in a replacement part from a fab or warehouse that is within a few hundred miles will alleviate the need for any factory to keep a huge amount of spare parts inventory on-location.
Volans-i isn’t giving up all the details on its drones, yet. But the company has built fixed-wing drones that range from an 8-foot to an 11-foot wingspan and fly from 70 miles to 200 miles per hour. The founders say the drones can carry up to 50 lbs. with a more typical payload of 10 lbs. per delivery.