Healy interview II: Scaling Manna drone delivery under ‘well-defined, cohesive’ EU regulation

Manna drone delivery EU

Manna Aero CEO Bobby Healy is preparing to nearly quadruple the company’s current potential client base in Ireland with the start of drone deliveries in a large Dublin-area town in a few months. From there, he plans to launch activity in European Union nations he considers ready for aerial services. Healy tells DroneDJ in the second part of our interview why he believes its regulations put the EU in particularly strong position to take the global lead in emerging UAV-based services; how Manna’s full-stack drone manufacturing and operation model gives it a business advantage; and why a trained programmer who successfully built two tech travel sector companies decided drone deliveries would be his next challenge.

You’ll soon announce a new drone delivery market in Ireland that’ll vastly expand Manna’s potential clients. How hard is it to ramp operations up like that?

It’s just continuation of the straight line, but there is added complexity around a much larger town. We’ll be going from one of 35,000 people to somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 – going from four or five concurrent aircraft to about 15, and doing well over 1,000 deliveries a day. If you only had one way to describe it, it’s a hardening of the platform.

What are the biggest stakes in that challenge?

It’s about proving we can deal with that town of 100,000-plus, which involves the level of operational complexity that we need before we can scale across Europe. You can pretty much cover 60-plus percent of Europe if you can handle towns of over 100,000 people.

So the plan is to rev up with the new Dublin-area operation, then power on to Europe?

We first plan to cover the whole of Ireland, of suburban Ireland, from the end of ‘23 onwards. It’s not just our home market, but it’s also a market that’s very business friendly – the regulator here is very forward thinking. So, it’s one of the markets really ready (for) drone delivery services. It’s like the other markets we’re looking at in Europe: You lean heavily into those that want you soonest, and are ready to implement the use pay services.

Which EU nations are readiest for Manna drone deliveries?

It’s a bit of a subjective question because there isn’t one particular metric or measurement that you could apply. It’s more the understanding of readiness, of what’s needed.

If you look at the progress of U-space implementation and readiness for the various services, I would say Poland, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and certainly Ireland are farthest ahead.  And Malta – a small market that ranks very highly in terms of both willingness and readiness to engage with a business like ours.

In the US and UK, the EU has a reputation as regulation-mad, risk-averse, and comparatively complicated for emerging businesses. Isn’t it the last place to launch new drone services?

Well, you want a conservative, safety-focused regulator, and when it comes to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the design verification requirements and regime for getting your aircraft approved are very, very tough. However, there’s also a political willingness, I’d actually say a political eagerness in Europe to learn to lead in drone delivery, and in all other use cases with drones.

Europe has provided the leadership example to the individual markets, and some of those have really responded with action. So, we find ourselves – unusually for Europe – leading the world in regulation, or the predictability of regulation. That means well-defined regulations, a defined timeline for implementation, and a regulator with teeth that works with each of the markets to make sure those timelines have been ratified and built into our legislations. 

Europe has provided the clarity that we need as a private company to be able to raise investment with confidence, and to be able to show investors that we can make progress – that there’s an environment where drone delivery is in the imminent future. So, I would say you need to look at Europe more as having a cohesive set of regulations that apply to all of the markets, and which say, “this is what it takes to fly.”

Read: Manna drone delivery CEO Bobby Healy discusses EU, US expansion

Manna manufactures its own EU-certified drones for deliveries, and has a new production facility for that. Is that a big advantage over competitors?

It is, and will grow with time. We don’t see huge capacity requirements for this stage of the business. For 2023, we see a maximum of 500 to 1,000 aircraft, but from 2024 onwards, we’ll see in the tens, hundreds, even thousands of aircraft, which is when we’ll start to really manufacture, commission, and deploy in anger. So ‘23 is still very much about preparing the next scaling step of the business, of switching on the machines. 

The competitive advantage that provides us is having a certifiable aircraft that can fly over people. There aren’t many companies in the world that are going to be in a position to manufacture those in the next year or two. Our strategy has always been to develop drone delivery as a service, with a full stack the entire way down in both manufacturing and operating the aircraft.

Manna earned EASA’s light UAS certificate (LUC), which is recognized in all EU nations. What advantages will that provide as you expand? 

You need the LUC, which is essentially a delegation of authority from the regulator to the recipient, allowing us to create our own operations. But with that comes, obviously, a lot of responsibility. You end up having the governance and discipline of an airline, and of a proper aircraft manufacturer. That’s just an incredible burden and overhead for any private entity to take on, and only well-funded businesses are ever going to achieve that. 

The prize is incredibly large, too, because you end up having a safe platform that can be scaled quickly across the region. That’s obviously a huge advantage, and you’re never going to do it flying modified DJIs or whatever, and stick a parachute on them and call that safe. 

We’re in aviation here, we have the law of large numbers as our worst enemy. It requires a very special governance, discipline, and engineering to achieve that feat. But the rewards will equal the challenge.

But you also need public acceptance, which hasn’t always been forthcoming.

There’s a perception that big swathes of people are against drone delivery, and we’ve already proven there aren’t. We’ve done our surveys, and we’ve seen other people’s surveys. If you prompt people, you get a 90-plus percent positive view of it…  Our three studies contained a total of 16 complaints from a population 46,000 people – that’s a pretty good number.

But we do have to proceed hand in hand with the communities we’re flying over. It’s not going to be one of those things where we just steamroll in and say, “We’re here, tough luck.”

Read: Manna Aero plans US, EU drone delivery expansion

Drone delivery is also knocked for mostly transporting rather trivial goods: coffee, fast food, toilet paper. Will that change?

Yes, of course. And we already fly prescription medicine, defibrillators, over-the-shelf pharmacy goods. Yet what are people actually ordering? The data says people want coffee, pastries, ice cream; they want onions, groceries – everyday things. 

It’s literally that simple. One-tenth of a percent of our orders are for pharmacy items, prescription items. The rest is what communities and people actually want and order. That data shows the everyday consumer of everyday objects is actually the killer app for drone delivery.

Can you explain your career path from programmer to travel tech entrepreneur to drone delivery CEO and activist? Why drones? Why delivery?

I’m a tech builder, so drones were a little bit left field for me. But what’s common is there’s a clear domain, which in this case is logistics. And the big problem that domain must solve is the scalability, efficiency, and cost, especially in last-mile delivery. But all you need really to solve a domain problem is good technology. 

I felt that I knew what the solution was, and drones are it. As crazy as it sounds, some of the best disruptions, the most positive impacts on industry and commerce in the last 100 years have come from crazy ideas that don’t sound so crazy now. And if you really look at the fundamentals, at the base technology, the actual capital costs of building (drones), the unit cost of the flying them, and the functionality and capabilities of those aircraft, you’ll find no flaws. 

They’re in every way better than the way human beings move products around today.

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