On the frontier of the newest advances in logistics and delivery, Dayton-based Drone Express is in elite company, its chief executive says.
Drone Express is one of just 10 companies in line for crucial Federal Aviation Administration certification for drone package delivery. Chief Executive Beth Flippo said her company is chasing the same certification sought by Google, Amazon, Zipline and others.
No package-delivery drone in the United States has been “type-certified” by the FAA, Flippo said in an interview this week. In seeking a crucial trio of FAA certificates for its craft, Drone Express is bumping elbows with some of the biggest names in commerce.
“There are all these big players — and little us,” Flippo said. “We’ve got a great spot there.”
“It’s a big deal for Dayton,” added Flippo, who moved here from New Jersey. “It’s going to be the first of its kind in Dayton.”
Drone Express has seen plenty of change since last summer, when its work with Kroger first brought it on Dayton-area radar.
The company’s pilot project delivering groceries for Centerville Kroger customers was supposed to last three months. It lasted nine months and is now on pause, Flippo said.
With about 54 employees total, Drone Express moved its headquarters to the Firefly building in downtown Dayton, while maintaining drone production in Monroe. There are about 15 people working for the company in downtown Dayton.
Originally part of Telegrid — a New Jersey telecommunications company founded by Flippo’s parents in 1984 — Drone Express went independent after a first investment round last November. (Flippo is a former Telegrid chief technology officer.)
Now, the roles have reversed, and Telegrid is a wholly owned subsidiary of Drone Express, which is owned by Flippo and investors. And Drone Express is in the midst of a new investment round.
Today, the company is involved in a new delivery pilot project with Papa John’s pizza in Atlanta. And the company is looking for opportunities in the Dayton area, of course.
“We’re talking to a lot of local customers,” Flippo said. “That’s what we’re trying to do — building out to deliver for a lot of local people in the Dayton area. We have a lot of talks going on right now with multiple different stores and restaurants.”
The next steps involve the pursuit of a trio of FAA certificates.
The first major certificate is an “airworthiness” certificate, the same certification that much larger airplanes receive. The FAA inspects the company’s drone with an eye on airworthiness.
A production certificate goes hand-in-hand with the first certificate. That certifies that company’s quality management system. “It’s making sure that every drone that comes off the line is exactly the same, every single time,” the CEO said.
In pursuit of that certificate, Drone Express is working with the FAA MIDO (Manufacturing Inspection District Office) in Vandalia to audit its Monroe production site.
Then there’s what Flippo calls the “holy grail” certificate, the Part 135 domestic air carrier license. Perhaps four of these have been awarded for drones, she said.
“It is the only way to carry cargo for compensation in the United States,” she said. “Not only do you have to be an American company, because it’s a domestic license … it’s also the only path to fly beyond visual line of sight.”
Without that certification, a Drone Express employee must have “eyes on the bird” at all times, greatly reducing delivery range.
The company has pursued these certificates for nearly three years.
She envisions a day when drones can deliver packages to your backyard — or the trunk of your car.
“It’s there waiting for you,” Flippo said. “That kind of communication between machines is where we’re really excited to get to.”