DASH Systems, the Los Angeles-based FreightTech startup using precision airdrops to expand the reach of next-day delivery, announced the successful completion of a proof-of-concept Alaska expedition this month.
A partnership with the Office of Naval Research and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks saw DASH’s Cessna 208 fly over 7,000 miles and place precision-guided pods on helipad-sized drop zones across the state. Locations included HAARP (the military’s High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a high-powered radio transmitter studying the upper atmosphere from Gakona, Alaska), the Poker Flat Research Center, the remote Athabascan Indian village of Minto, and Toolik Lake on Alaska’s North Slope.
In December 2020, DASH raised an $8 million seed round from 8VC, Tusk Venture Partners, Loup Ventures, Trust Ventures, Perot Jain, and Make in LA. 8VC is also an investor in FreightWaves. DASH has built flight software and guided pods capable of carrying payloads of around 15 pounds — larger pods will come later — and will act as a third-party logistics provider, matching freight to available pilots and aircraft and providing flight plans and visibility.
The idea is that by choosing to “land the package, not the plane,” DASH can dramatically increase the efficiency of air cargo delivery. Eliminating multiple takeoffs and landings saves fuel and time, extending the flight, but also expands the number of potential delivery locations beyond those with functioning airstrips.
Joel Ifill, founder and CEO of DASH Systems, told FreightWaves that the Alaska trip allowed his team to repeatedly test the end-to-end process of planning, execution, hitting the target, and customer pickup.
“We heard so many local stories and anecdotes like, ‘We remember this winter when the roads were shut down and we couldn’t fly and it took days or weeks to get a delivery,’” Ifill said. “This was about first learning that it was possible and then getting some reps in. Every day, we’d show up at a new site, evaluate it, come fly and do an airdrop. Without picking the weather or locations, we were successful at every one.”
Ifill said that DASH measured delivery success along three axes: payload survivability, accuracy and customer service. Payload survivability is a fairly binary outcome (either the cargo is intact or not), Ifill said, while accuracy meant landing within a specified drop zone. Customer service meant that if DASH promised the customer delivery at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, that’s when the pod landed. DASH successfully landed pods in flat and mountainous terrain in winds up to 20 knots.
While the initial payloads in this expedition were mock payloads without real cargo — in July even most remote Alaskan roads are still usable — DASH’s ability to execute paves the way for more extensive foul weather testing and real customer loads in the near future. That cargo would typically include critical spare parts, emergency medical supplies and even food staples. One paradox of testing the guided pods is that it requires people on the ground to monitor and verify the placement of the landing and the condition of the pod after it lands. In a “live” customer scenario, of course, the whole premise is that the customer location would otherwise be inaccessible.
“Now we’re transitioning from demonstrations to actual customer deliveries, especially on the government side,” Ifill said. “This is just the beginning. If there’s anything I want to highlight, it’s that as a seed-stage organization, we just flew over 7,000 miles, delivering to multiple locations all in a single week in Alaska and demonstrating that it is feasible and practical to do it in the current FAA structure.”
Although the DASH Systems team made the Alaska deliveries in this demonstration using the company’s own plane, DASH did bring a local commercial pilot from Warbelow’s/Arctic Air to watch the airdrop process. “You have to see it to believe it,” Ifill said.
Today, including contractors and part-timers, Ifill said that DASH’s team numbers about 15 people, 75% of whom are engineers building out the company’s systems. The company is finalizing partnerships and contracts with major customers to be announced in the near future.