Jan 28, 2021 - Economy

Fly me a pizza (or two)

A drone delivers Pizza Hut orders over central Israel.

A drone delivers Pizza Hut orders over central Israel. Photo: Courtesy of Dragontail Systems

A fledgling system north of Tel Aviv has three drones making six test runs a day from a Pizza Hut to designated parking lots, where drivers pick up the meals and deliver them the "last mile."

Why it matters: All signs point to a future in which systems like this are ubiquitous across America, with food and merchandise shuttled overhead to centralized landing hubs (as opposed to your doorstep or balcony).

The big picture: UPS, Alphabet, FedEx, Amazon, Walmart and other giants are pressing forward with plans for delivery-by-drone, a market that Deloitte predicts will represent $115 billion annually by 2035 (if you include cargo drones and urban taxis).

  • "We need flying burgers," Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was quoted as saying when Uber Eats and McDonald's tried drone delivery in San Diego in 2019.

Momentum is building in the U.S., as are early-days experiments:

  • Verizon and UPS plan to deliver goods by drone to The Villages in Florida.
  • The FAA just gave its first approval to a Massachusetts company to fly fully automated drones (with no pilot steering from the ground).
  • Companies are gearing up to deliver COVID-19 vaccines by drone.

But, but, but: Axios readers aren't thrilled with our drone-filled future, judging from reactions to an Axios article and post that blew up my LinkedIn feed.

  • People remonstrated about noise, privacy, government surveillance, and the potential for package theft, vandalism or even terrorism.

How it works in Israel: For just over a month, Pizza Hut Israel has been working with a restaurant logistics company called Dragontail Systems to test delivery by drone from a single store in Bnei Dror. (The WSJ covered this first.)

  • In June, they plan a commercial rollout involving 12 drones, each with two parachutes (lest they fall and bonk people on the head).
  • So far, weather has been the biggest snag — the drones don't fly in heavy wind or rain.
  • For now, the drones can only carry about 5.5 pounds — "It's about two pizzas and a Coke," Udi Shamai, president of Pizza Hut Israel, told me.
  • The 'za gets packed in a thermal sleeve to keep it warm.

On the plus side: When there's heavy traffic on the ground, the drones will get your pizza there faster, Ido Levanon, founder and CEO of Dragontail Systems, told me.

  • Customers can use a tracker to follow their pizza's progress from oven to air to delivery bike (or car).
  • Levanon envisions U.S. food deliveries soaring over bodies of water — restaurants in New Jersey flying meals across the Hudson River to customers in Manhattan, for instance.

What's next: Dragontail has delivery deals with Papa John's and Sweetgreen.

  • "Pizza is the most challenging" food to airlift, because it's "heavier than sushi, or even burgers, for that matter," Levanon told me.
  • "When it comes to things like salads, we can carry four to five meals at a time, which makes it even more effective."
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