Ryan Walsh is CEO and Co-Founder of Valqari, the company meeting the challenge of the “last inch” logistics problem with its patented universal Drone Delivery Station, a receptacle that accepts manned and unmanned deliveries, such as drones. The Drone Delivery Station is a key part in establishing autonomous, two-way, supply chains with a full, digital, chain of custody.
Why a mail-box drone delivery system and not a tether?
We don’t have an issue with the tether but there are certain limitations that come with a tethered system and it doesn’t solve the problem we’re solving. When you want to have a full chain of custody, when you want to have an automated system that ensures the package gets to the customer without any losses and the customer can’t wait for the package to be delivered, then a tether is not the answer.
Do you see your ultimate customer as primarily commercial, domestic, or both?
The current market available for revenue is primarily commercial but that’s going to gradually shift as we get closer to at-home deliveries; there’s more of these giants entering the market that’s going to really expand the range of services. It’s not just wealthy neighbourhoods where pilot operations are taking place – we’re going to see more of a shift from commercial customers to residential and eventually, like the logistics sector, the market will evolve to include everyone.
What are your competitive advantages?
We have a very significant IP portfolio. We’ve really locked-down the landing-station sector in much of the world. We are the only ones to have a universal application – anything that’s even remotely similar hasn’t be able to integrate outside of their own ecosystem. We can plug into any drone network and provide a complete chain of custody with immediate, full automation. It doesn’t matter what fleet you already have, we can work with it. That reduces costs and leads to much lower insurance premiums and a safer environment overall. We believe there’s nobody even close to our capability to adapt. Our design is very modular so if a customer needs temperature control that is easy to provide. If a customer wants to use an individual attachment mechanism, we can accommodate that. We work with established drone operators rather than developing our own competing system – which in itself is a competitive advantage.
We have a worldwide portfolio of patents with quite broad claims that cover the landing station and delivery by drone to the landing station. Our IP covers technology that will be critical as the market enters the delivery market as the next phase of maturity. Our granted utility patents cover much of the developed world, so we feel we have an extremely strong position and we’re growing our portfolio every few months.
Where are you now and where will you be in five years’ time?
This year, we introduced our Drone Delivery Station featuring six separate storage units to accommodate multiple deliveries or pickups and we see this as a predominantly a commercial product, although it also can work for community or village applications. It allows for a fully autonomous point-to-point delivery or pickup, and accommodates packages delivered via Precision Landing, Hover dropped packages, and Winched packages. The regulations allow for more commercial operations, so we have been focusing on bringing that product to market with various partners, covering different geographic areas. That is slowly going to shift as regulations start moving towards at-home deliveries. We see that process developing over the next two years and once that really hits the mainstream about three years from now, it’s really going to take off. We will be launching our new products in that time, such as our Drone Mailbox, Window Units, and our Integrated Landing Pads which will be built into structures. In five years, we’re really going to see the vision become a reality: you order something and a drone is at your house within a few minutes, all autonomously.
The Federal Aviation Administration will be announcing some of its new regulations in the coming months and years to meet the mandates set by Congress. The European Union’s new regulations will take effect in January. We are seeing adoptions in other countries, which will open the market initially for tests and then full commercial operations. Testing is vital because if are to really take this mainstream it will require developing an entire ecosystem.
The FAA’s testing remote identification now with 10 companies, our partner T-Mobile being one of them. It’s important to get those implementations right – it’s aviation, it’s people’s safety, so you want to make sure there are no missteps which is why the FAA is being very deliberate and taking the necessary steps. We’re following suit, so as operations start proliferating, we can be in a good position to support drone companies enter new markets.
What are the certification requirements for your drone mail boxes?
There’s a lot of unchartered territory here so we have to figure out what those criteria are. There’s not really a rule book, a mailbox unit needs postal code standards and we work to the postal code regulations. But there’s also an aviation component. Since we don’t fly, we’re not covered under the current FAA rules, so we have to work with our partners to figure out how to safely implement these procedures, which includes rule development. In the Middle East, in Dubai specifically, these stations are critical for drone operations and regulations have been drawn up to cover these so we’re looking at how these have been drafted.
Do you get involved with the design of flight paths into and out of the mail boxes?
Most of the flight characteristics and path-planning is done by the operator but we like to ensure we’re working with our operator partners to get the safest solutions in place. Although we can place any landing beacon or visual indicator on our landing surface to facilitate that drone operator and precision landing. We can also integrate with their route planning APIs to map which boxes are within the flight path, as well as if they have features that can affect the flight planning, such as wireless recharging.
Do you have a set number of partners? How do you develop relationships with other drone eco system stakeholders?
We find that partners fall into a few main categories; the drone operators, the drone and subcomponent manufacturers, complimentary ecosystem providers, and end-user customers. We find unique partner combinations in each of these categories to build drone solutions for exactly what the customer needs. Many times, our partners fall into multiple categories, such as AgEagle, whom will be doing our manufacturing, but we are also developing some really exciting systems together.
Much like you have drones flying via a UTM system and partners supplying various connectivity components, we are part of the ecosystem and help provide a safer operation. Much of the overall responsibility falls on the drone operator and the systems integrator to bring all these elements together and we’re looking at how we enhance and further automate that solution. We see ourselves as full integration support, working with a number of partners – well over a dozen drone operators alone now – and we choose those partners because some are operating in specific geographic locations and countries and we need to find partners – including drone operators – based locally. It’s not easy for a US partner to transfer operations to Europe, or vice versa, so we look for geographic specific companies. There is no one-size-fits-all drone delivery operation, as each differs in terms of frequency, payloads and range of operations; so we really focus on having the right partner for the job. We have built such a large partner network that many times a drone company or end-user customer comes to us with questions about setting up a network and we are able to introduce them to all of the other partners that they need as a one-stop-shop.
When will there be fully commercial drone deliveries taking place around the world?
It’s a complex answer. The first business use-case medical deliveries – missions with a very critical need. Those are definitely getting fast-tracked. Then there are deliveries to remote locations, or maritime operations, missions that don’t put a lot of people’s lives in jeopardy. With these you’re not flying over people or at night and these applications are also really pressing ahead.
We’re also starting to see pockets of other drone delivery services developing around the world, circles of activity that are expanding and becoming a little more complex. There are different drone operators in each little pocket; you have a medical-delivery operation starting up over here and a food-delivery pilot over here. As those circles start overlapping, we’re going to start finding the same infrastructure will be required for both operations. And as we get closer to standardisation that’s going to be reinforced.
As this infrastructure develops UTM will be introduced and connectivity widened – all the things that are required for the network to work efficiently. It will become increasingly mainstream over the next five years. We probably won’t see a full deployment where you can have a drone deliver anything to you in 15 minutes for several more years. But we are taking the necessary steps as an industry to get towards that.
What are the milestones for this to happen?
Regulation’s key and regulation is going to advance more slowly than technology. There are multiple developing drone operations and UTM systems that have figured out how to integrate these services within existing airspace. Battery charging, drone characteristics – everything has been figured out technologically and 2021 will be year where a lot of integration, partnering and consolidation will take place. We should be able to identify which kind of companies will be able to provide a full eco system and how this will start to be deployed en masse.
We need to show regulators how we can all partner to produce operations that are safe and efficient and it’s up to industry to show we can produce a complete system cohesively, one that can grow and integrate further.
Part of that process is getting community acceptance. A lot of focus has gone into reducing noise and that’s something we’re actively looking at with our partners because community acceptance is such a critical piece of it all.
How do you see the standards setting process developing?
This industry is mirroring the smartphone industry in a lot of ways. In the smartphone industry you see a couple of relatively large competing players and they tend to have their own specific niches, from the operating system to the processors within them. It’s never a smooth process and it will take time to develop new standards. We will have to be able to connect to the current infrastructure – which will mean ensuring drones from outside the USA will be able to connect to US-based communications systems. The most universal applications that solve the most needs will be adopted quickest and that will lend itself to the implementation of standards. Our goal is to set the standard for landing infrastructure worldwide. The lessons we learn in one market should be taken as best practices and applied to the other markets. That’s how this industry can adapt and scale quickly.