Nigel Bowen

Australian drone entrepreneur Matthew Sweeny is poised to conduct the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved drone deliveries in the US.

But when, at the age of 23, he decided to create a commercial drone delivery service, he faced challenges.

It’s a Kitty Hawk moment not just for Flirtey but the industry as a whole.

Matthew Sweeny

“When I launched Flirtey with my co-founder Tom Bass in October, 2013, the technology to do what I wanted to do didn’t exist, there weren’t any regulations to govern its use even if it did exist, and the general public was frightened by drones,” Sweeny observes.

A couple of years on, partly as a result of Sweeny relocating to the US and partnering with the University of Nevada, the safe and reliable delivery drone technology needed to shuttle legal documents, mail, fast food, clothes, groceries and medical supplies between businesses and consumers does exist.

Now it’s just a matter of Sweeny – and other drone entrepreneurs – getting the regulators and punters to sign up to the idea of drones whizzing about overhead. That will no doubt be an involved process but Sweeny is hoping to give it a big push along on July 17, when drone deliveries in the US are scheduled to commence.

“There will be a free medical clinic conducted in an isolated part of Virginia at the local showgrounds,” Sweeny explains. “After people are examined, a pharmacy located elsewhere will fill any prescriptions that are issued and NASA will use a fixed wing aircraft to fly them to the nearest airport. Flirtey drones will then autonomously ferry pharmaceuticals from that airport to people at the medical clinic. It’s a Kitty Hawk moment not just for Flirtey but the industry as a whole.”

The Kitty Hawk analogy is a little tortured in that a burgeoning commercial drone industry already exists but Sweeny is suggesting the July 17 event will be a small but significant step towards aviation regulators allowing drones to do more than take pictures of weddings and real estate.

“It will be a significant historical moment in that it will show how on-demand drone delivery can revolutionise the delivery of medical care to remote communities and, more broadly, demonstrate the utility drone delivery could have in emergency situations, such as occurred after Hurricane Katrina,” he says.

Drone industry consultant Jan de Vos agrees the event will likely come to be regarded as a Kitty Hawk moment, though he points out plenty of time elapsed between the Wright brothers taking to the skies over Kitty Hawk in 1903 and the airline industry developing.

“It’s a milestone but the reality is regulators, in the US and elsewhere, remain nervous about allowing drones to operate out of the line of sight of their operator, let alone with no operator involved at all. The technology has long existed to allow safe drone delivery services and has in fact been trialled in drone-friendly countries such as New Zealand. I’m not expecting that the FAA will suddenly legalise delivery drones as a result of this event – I’d predict the American authorities will end up being panicked into doing that after it happens elsewhere and they see innovation and dollars heading offshore.”

Sweeny concedes the FAA will proceed cautiously and is reluctant to play Nostradamus. “I’m conscious that Wilbur Wight predicted in 1901 that it would take 50 years for man to fly so I’m hesitant about laying out a timeframe. What will probably happen is the FAA will approve delivery drones in rural areas, then lightly populated regions, then densely populated cities. So, yes, it will probably be some time before Flirtey is operating in New York but this is the first major step towards getting there; things are moving faster than people realise.”

Regardless of exactly what transpires post July 17, Australians can take pride in the pioneering role Sweeny has taken in what will be one of the largest industries of the 21st century, especially given his ability to successfully compete with tech behemoths such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, all of which have thrown vast amounts of brainpower and money at developing drone delivery technology.

“Matt has avoided the trap so many Australian entrepreneurs fall into of thinking too small,” notes Hamish Hawthorn, CEO of Australian start-up incubator ATP Innovations. “He laid the foundations of his business in Australia, then had the audacity and ambition to head to the US to find the partners, investors and customers that would allow him to scale globally.”

Sweeny’s achievements are all the more impressive given his age and lack of a formal technology or business background. Thankfully, the expat retains enough antipodean self-deprecation not to get too carried away with his success.

“I agree with whoever said, ‘Starting a company is like eating glass while staring into the abyss,’ but after being laughed at and spending three years working 18-hour days, it’s a humbling experience to see your vision begin to become a reality,” he says.

By Press