Lenita Powers, RGJ
Flirtey, an Australian firm that uses drones to deliver textbooks to customers, announced today it is partnering with the University of Nevada, Reno to help develop a commercial drone delivery service.
Matthew Sweeny, Flirtey’s chief executive officer, said the partnership could make his company and UNR pioneers in developing a safe delivery system using unmanned autonomous vehicles, or so-called drones, positioning Flirtey to become “a first mover when the U.S. commercial market opens up.
Sweeny said he chose UNR to conduct research and development for Flirtey’s future drones for its reputation as a leading research institution and because it began offering a minor in unmanned autonomous systems last spring.
“That means we will be building drones on campus, using the university’s indoor flight test facility and hiring their graduate students from the UAS program,” he said.
Mridul Gautam, UNR’s vice president of research and innovation, said Flirtey and the rest of the drone industry has immense potential to help diversify and expand Nevada’s economy.
“But the bigger issue is our goal to link our students, faculty, staff and researchers with both established entrepreneurs and start-ups to ultimately deliver jobs,” Gautam said.
“We are here to serve as an economic drive because that is a critical component to the vibrant creativity taking place in Reno that will keep our graduates here,” he said. “We want our doctors, scientists, engineers and designers to stay here and help develop the economy.”
Sweeny said he originally was looking at the Bay Area as the site to develop his startup commercial drone delivery company, but he switched to Nevada after it was selected last December by the Federal Aviation Administration to be one of six states in the nation authorized to conduct UAV testing.
California was not among the six states chosen by the FAA.
Sweeny said the Silver State’s close proximity to Silicon Valley and its strong aeronautical history have positioned it to become “the biggest little city in the world of UAV space.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval said Flirtey’s move into Nevada sends a signal to the drone industry.
“The collaboration between Flirtey and UNR will send a strong message that Nevada is a leader in this emerging industry, not only because of our unique environment, but also because we are educating and training the aviation workforce of the future,” he said.
Competition to create the first commercial drone delivery system in the U.S. is heating up.
Amazon has been testing the waters to use drones to fly its goods to customers across the country and Google announced last week has entered the race.
Sweeny sees the entry of the two industry heavyweights into drone delivery as a plus for Flirtey.
“With Google and Amazon in this effort, they are going to build up the market for us by pushing for regulation faster than a startup can, so we see this as a huge positive,” he said.
One of the world’s first unmanned aerial delivery companies, Flirtey conducted its first successful drone delivery test last October in Australia.
Since then, it has completed more than 100 successful test deliveries in Sydney for the New Zealand textbook company Zookal.
New Zealand has the most liberal drone laws in the world, and it recently launched Air Share, an online platform to track the flight plans of commercial drones “to allow companies to log where they will be flying so the drones don’t run into each other,” Sweeny said.
Since flying drones commercially is still illegal in the United States, Flirtey will be working with UNR to develop and test drones for its next expansion into New Zealand.
Sweeny said the key areas in developing a drone delivery system will be ensuring safety and determining how much weight they can carry and how far they can fly.
Flirtey is UNR’s first research and development partnership with a drone company, but Gautam said the university’s Nevada Advanced Autonomous System Innovation Center will spur more economic development and commercialization in the drone industry.
The center will take up an entire floor in UNR’s building on Sinclair Street near downtown Reno when the remodeling project is finished this fall, he said.
Sweeny said his vision for the future of drones is expanding their use to help humanity during times of disaster.
“Envision a natural disaster like (Hurricane) Katrina where drones could have been used to bring in emergency medical supplies to people, or at the Superdome where people were stuck, and water and other supplies could have been delivered by drones,” he said.
“So we are looking at democratizing the delivery system,” Sweeny said. “Just like the railroad changed America and united the country, our vision is to build a drone transportation system of the future that will allow the faster delivery of goods.”
AT A GLANCE
Flirtey, a Sydney, Australia company that recently opened an office on the University of Nevada, Reno, has announced its partnership with UNR to conduct research and development for Flirtey’s plan to start a commercial drone delivery system.