Some Grand Forks shoppers are now able to get their purchases delivered to their backyards -- by drone.
On Friday, April 23, Flytrex, an Israel-based company, rolled out its drone delivery service from the parking lot of Greenberg Realty, on South Columbia Road. Flytrex is partnering with Grand Forks-based EASE Drones, to make the deliveries. EASE supplies the pilots, and Flytrex supplies the drones and the software to operate them.
Customers who sign up for the service can order food and other goods via smartphone application. The purpose: to help people maintain their social distance during the health crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Right now we’re focusing on groceries,” said Wes Shover, head of U.S. operations for Flytrex. “We want to limit the exposure for people going into big box stores, where they potentially are going to be exposed to the coronavirus.”
The companies delivered to a handful of customers on Friday, whisking items like baby wipes, bacon and cereal through the sky. And eggs.
“We delivered a carton of eggs,” said Brent Eliason, pilot and owner-operator of EASE Drones. “They delivered unbroken.”
Shoppers need to visit the Flytrex website and must subscribe to the service. They then download the company’s Flytrex "Eat" application. If the address is within the delivery area, a delivery site is created. It could be in a backyard, or in the case of an apartment building, a designated spot on the premises.
Shoppers open the application, choose the delivery site, then choose what they want to buy from available stores -- in this case, Walmart. A runner on the ground picks up the items, and they are loaded onto the drone. The drone flies at about 70 meters, then descends to about 60 feet, where the bagged items are lowered by a hook and rope system, once the customer taps a button in the app. Shover said the app reminds a customer not to walk beneath the drone.
“We're really big on safety and making sure that we're going above and beyond for the safety campaigns,” Shover said.
Don’t jump on your phone just yet, though. The delivery area is limited to a square of land from South 26th Street to South 20th Street, ending at 40th Avenue South, or about 120 houses. The drone can carry about six and a half pounds, and can’t fly in rain. Pilots need to be careful of the wind.
“We can’t operate in the blustery North Dakota dirt-blowing wind,” said Eliason.
The companies don’t have a waiver to fly over people, and the drone can only operate in visual line of sight of the pilot, which limits the delivery area. Flytrex got permission to fly out of Greenberg Realty’s parking lot because of its location next to a city-owned waterway, which keeps the drones away from people. The city gave permission to start making the deliveries.
"If we didn't have the support of Grand Forks, that would be much more difficult," Shover said.
In the future, Shover said he wants to make deliveries to a larger area of town.
“Phase two would be to apply for a waiver to do line-of-sight deliveries but with operations over people,” Shover said. “Since it's so flat here in Grand Forks, we’ll be able to deliver to a large percentage of homes.”