19 Jan Interview with Bobby Healy, Founder and CEO of Manna Drone Delivery, Ireland
BF: Drone delivery represents a huge opportunity, as the market opens around the world. Companies like Alphabet Wing, Drone Express, Matternet, DroneUp and, of course, Manna Drone Delivery are all lining up to take a piece of the market. What kind of advantages does drone delivery offer to customers, and why are we now seeing such a high amount of activity in the sector?
Bobby Healy: Drone delivery is faster, quieter, more scalable, and safer, and it’s a far better experience for customers that want everything from groceries to takeaway food, to hot coffee you can get it in three minutes. The speed as well as the cost of operation is good, having been reduced to a tenth of a fraction in the last few years. It is so much more scalable, much better for small and big businesses, and much better for the consumer. Everything about it is superior to road-based delivery.
BF: You established Manna Drone Delivery back in 2018, when the market was quite young. Since then, activity has picked up increasingly quickly, with 2023 intended to be a pivotal year for the company. Can you give our readers an overview of what kind of competitive services Manna Drone Delivery hopes to offer to the global community, and what major milestones has the company recently passed in its rollout in Ireland and beyond?
Bobby Healy: We’re the largest drone delivery operation in Europe. Helping this growth is the fact that Europe has the regulatory framework and laws that exist now to support scaled up, operational drone delivery. We have a structural advantage being in Europe. We’re in Ireland, but the laws and regulations that apply to us are the same for the 500 million people that are in Europe (and to whom we can fly). And then in terms of advantages, when you look at a typical small bookshop, hardware store, pharmacy, or grocery store, their relationship with their customers is based on their customers coming to their physical location or getting delivery from them. This may take and hour or two hour or whatever it is. So, the advantages are obvious. Flying robots are just so much better. And then when we look at ourselves long-term, Europe is the place we are certain that drone delivery will begin to scale first and the United States second. The United States will be a fast follower. We’ll be in the United States this year. It’s probably the biggest market for what we’re going to do. But Europe is the first market.
BF: One of Manna’s main competitive assets is its custom technology, both with its drones and its software. What path has the company taken in its R&D and development of its custom technologies, and what advantages do the company’s current drones and software give to customers?
Bobby Healy: What most people don’t recognize about this industry is that it’s not just building up the hardware, it’s that this hardware flies over populated areas at a rate of millions of flights a day. So, then, how do you ensure that these flights are done safely?
So, actually, what we have that nobody else has is an aircraft that’s now reliable and safe and autonomous. So, an aircraft flight itself doesn’t need any human input: it goes away, does its delivery and comes back without needing any people. And that’s an incredibly difficult bit of engineering to do. That’s a big difference. It’s not difficult to buy a drone or even build a drone, but to build one that’s autonomous and safe is extremely difficult. And that’s where we have succeeded.
BF: Is there going to be a lot of traffic now in the skies with drones, and how is technology helping to combat that?
Bobby Healy: That’s a software problem to solve. Funnily enough, it’s not a difficult problem to solve. So, traffic management, scheduling and deconfliction of flight paths we do ourselves. And then there are protocols or standards between different companies. For example, if we’re flying from A to B and another company is flying from C to D, there are standards in place where we can talk to each other to make sure that we deconflict the airspace. So, if that’s not difficult, then that’s done. If someone’s at home and they’re thinking, what does the world look like where, in 10 years’ time, drone delivery is the way you get everything, from your hamburgers to your coffee to your medication, they might be worried that there are going to be too many drones in the sky. Well, there won’t. The fact is that, particularly in the suburbs, the population density pretty much guarantees that there will only be a handful of aircraft in the sky at any one time. And if you look the 10 neighborhoods where we are now, with 35,000 people in them, we operate those 10 with just five aircraft.
BF: Of course, unmanned drones require achieving regulatory approvals in both Ireland and the international markets the company is aiming for. What regulatory advances have been made so far in Ireland and the EU, and what more needs to be done in terms of policy and licensing to unlock the market for Manna in Europe and the world?
Bobby Healy: In the Irish Aviation Authority we have a great partner that lets us fly in the airspace, testing things out underneath the existing regulatory framework from Europe. It’s a great, willing partner that helps us test our platform. And then in Europe, we have the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). EASA has, for many years now, been planning and preparing to essentially commercialize the airspace below 500 feet. Toward this end, they’ve created something called U-space, which are standards and protocols that allow companies like us to use the airspace, while, at the same time, making general aviation aware that we’re there. Similarly, they make us aware that general aviation is there. We can coexist in the skies, and EASA has paved a way for that with strong regulations and strong laws that went into effect in the EU at the start of this year.
We’ll be starting to scale this year in Ireland and at one other European market. Then, in 2024, most of Europe will start to create a footprint for drone technology, and that’s because of strong regulation. In other regions, and particularly in the USA, where it’s a much more complex environment with more stakeholders, it’s a different story altogether. The FAA defined the regulation that’s there. They are doing a great job but are slightly behind where Europe is in terms of readiness to enable scale operations. The rest of the world will slot in behind either the FAA or EASA. You’ll have the UK doing one thing, the Middle East, Latin America, and so on doing others. They’re all looking at what Europe and the FAA are doing, and, ultimately, they’ll follow the twin peaks of the USA and Europe. Over the longer-term, harmonization will happen, and there’ll be one set of aviation standards for drones across the world. The Europe aviation regulation rules are tough, and the bar is very high. But one thing Europe loves to do and does well is create regulations. In our case, it’s necessary because you couldn’t fly without rules. After all, we are all sharing the airspace. So, in this case, you need strong regulation, but you need the regulation to happen fast, to be clear and well-governed, and that’s what Europe is great at.
BF: One of the advantages of using drones in this fashion is lowering the carbon footprint of deliveries. According to a commissioned study by the University of Maynooth, Manna’s drones have significantly fewer emissions than a small gas-powered car. How will Manna’s fleet of drones help to decarbonize the logistics sector, and what else is the company doing to cut down its carbon footprint in its operations?
Bobby Healy: The aircraft itself produces no CO2 when it flies because it’s an electric-powered aircraft. However, as people correctly point out, you still need to charge the battery. The report from the University of Maynooth showed that we’re less efficient than an electric bicycle but eight times more efficient than a small petrol car. So we look at that electric bike and say, how can we do better than that electric bike? One of our flights takes 200-watt hours per flight of energy in the battery. The simple solution is we acquire green energy. So, we source our power for those batteries through green providers that use sustainable sources for power. You end up with a zero CO2 footprint for drone delivery completely to zero CO2 footprints. Now you have to manufacture the aircraft, and that has a footprint to it. But one of our aircraft is used for 75,000 flights. That’s close to a thousand trees planted in its lifetime.
BF: Manna Drone Delivery is also eyeing the US market. Manna’s head of US operations, Andrew Patton, recently mentioned that partnerships with multinational brands would be happening in 2023. What hurdles does Manna need to overcome to hit the US market, and what kind of opportunities does this huge market represent for the company?
Bobby Healy: The hurdles are mostly regulatory. The US consumer and US businesses all want to see drone delivery. The US consumer is particularly excited about it just like the European consumers. Everyone wants drone delivery. So, there a question over the appetite for what we’re doing. It’s huge. But lack of clarity on the timeline for the regulation means that we’re not yet ready to fully invest in a rollout for the United States. And until we know what the timeline is for proper regulatory approval for scale drone delivery, there’s no sense in a company like ours using our resources there when we can be in Europe, scaling essentially unconstrained. So, the barriers in the USA are mostly the current uncertainty around that timeline. It’s not going to stop us from operating there, and we are already engaging with numerous, large US brands about our project. We’ll start to demonstrate our intent to be in the USA, and to be a leader there, when regulations permit us to be.
BF: You’ve had a very successful career, starting from software development into being a heavyweight entrepreneur in Ireland. This latest project has drawn a lot of interest and more than €35 million in venture capital funding. What are your current top three priorities as CEO of Manna Drone Delivery, and what vision do you have for the company and the drone delivery sector in 2023 and beyond?
Bobby Healy: The number one priority for us in the company is safety. To demonstrate that we can do a million flights a day without any intervention or incidents is paramount. Number two is to demonstrate that we can do that profitably. And we intend by the end of this year to demonstrate a profitable drone delivery business; we’ll be the only ones in the world able to do that. And finally, safety and profitability come hand in hand because if you’ve delivered safety, it means you’ve delivered autonomy, with no human mistakes possible. The aircraft systems develop on their own, and that’s essential because if there are no humans involved, then you get to a profitable operation. So those are the priorities for this year, alongside opening our USA project and opening in another European market. We haven’t named the market yet, but we know exactly where it is.
BF: What is your final message to the readers of USA Today?
Bobby Healy: They’re all invited to Ireland to see our operation in Dublin, 10 minutes north of the airport. We’ve led the way in drone technology and delivery. I’d like to acknowledge that and say that’s because Ireland is a leader on the international stage, in the regulatory sphere, and a friend to business.