Residents of Reykjavik can now have sushi dropped to their doorstep from the sky, after Israeli startup Flytrex chose the Icelandic capital as the launch site for what it claims is the world's first fully operational autonomous drone delivery service.

Reykjavík means "Bay of Smokes" in Icelandic, a reference to the steam that spouts from the hot springs nearby. In the rush hour traffic, the pollution caused by vehicles traversing the Elliðaár River that divides the city gives the name a new meaning.

Image: Flytrex

Deliveries of food and consumer goods from one side of the river to the other currently follows a circuitous ground route over a bridge that can take up to 25 minutes.

"Our drone does that in four minutes," Flytrex founder and CEO Yariv Bash told Techworld.

"And instead of one guy per car, you get one guy operating a fleet of drones. He doesn't have to control each one of the drones because they're autonomous." 

A cloud-based drone management system controls the fleet of drones in real-time. It approves each flight and then directs its course, monitoring the location, battery level and other flight information of each vehicle.

The drones can also reduce energy consumption, streamline logistics, and cut costs by 60 percent per delivery, claims Bash.

"We have got one person controlling a fleet of drones which are 100 percent electric," he says. "There can be way more packages per hour, with on-demand delivery and it'll be a fraction of the cost."

History of Flytrex

Amazon successfully trialled its Prime Air delivery system in rural Cambridge in December 2016, but Bash says his company is the first to launch a permanent service.

He describes Flytrex as a "complete end-to-end drone logistics service" rather than a drone manufacturer. Deliveries in Reykjavik are currently done by a DGI Matrice with attached cargo compartments, but these can quickly be replaced by newer models once they’re released.

Flytrex's core product is the cloud environment to run the delivery fleet. It also provides the maintenance, insurance and a fleet of drones ready to deploy.

The company was founded in Tel Aviv in 2013 and initially concentrated on a consumer product: a personal delivery drone that owners could use to send things to their family and friends.

Flytrex turned to commercial deliveries around 18 months ago, after observing that the public was becoming more open to the concept and that relevant regulations were beginning to change. The change of strategy helped it raise $3 million in Series A funding in January 2017.

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The Flytrex team is working with a number of regulatory bodies around the world to ensure that its system was safe to deploy. The Icelandic Transport Authority (Icetra) was the one of the most responsive, and gave Flytrex approval after extensive discussions.

"We don't think about them as toy drones on steroids," says Bash. "We look at them as small aeroplanes. The level of certainty that you have to show both in terms of calculated risk and in terms of testing is much more than just flying a toy drone with a remote control."

Flytrex has deployed its system in a partnership with Aha.is, Iceland's largest online marketplace, with a long history of delivering food and consumer goods across the country.

Reyjavik's landscape makes the city a good testing ground. The population is spread out across sprawling suburbs and there are few tall buildings. More densely populated urban areas such as Manhattan will be far more challenging.

The drone fleet isn't entirely autonomous though. A human operator monitors the system, while another inserts the package before take-off and extracts it in the field near its destination before taking it the final 100 metres by hand to the customer’s address.

What's next?

Fltrexy launched its Reykjavik fleet in August with two drones completing 20 deliveries per day. In the coming weeks that will go up to roughly 100 or more flights per day

They plan to extend deliveries along multiple routes and are working with the Icelandic ministry of transportation to extend the drone's drop-off target from a field near its final destination to the customer's back garden. The drone will hover 20 metres above the location and then lower the package to the ground on a wire.

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Amazon has led the drive towards drone deliveries since founder Jeff Bezos revealed they were testing an airborne delivery service in 2013, but Bash views them as more of an enabler than a threat.

"According to Amazon, 36 percent of their packages weigh below two-and-a-half kilos, or six pounds roughly, and we can carry 10 kilograms of weight," he says. "You can imagine that most deliveries could be done by drone."

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