Welcome to this final installment of Drone Disruptors. So far, Modern Shipper has sat down with four CEOs from four of the most dynamic startups in the drone delivery space. Each brings something unique to the industry: Flytrex wants to bring drones to your backyard; Volansi envisions being a fly on the wall; Matternet seeks to fly in cities; and Elroy Air prefers to fly between them.
All of those companies have one thing in common – they produce their own drones. But for this week’s installment, we take a look at a company that’s disrupting drone delivery not with its drones, but with … a mailbox?
“I just think that people are gonna be amazed how they ever got by without a DroneDek because of all the functionality that we’re going to deliver,” Dan O’Toole, chairman and CEO of DroneDek, told Modern Shipper.
DroneDek’s so-called “mailbox of the future” is equipped with security, communication, heating and cooling technology and a host of other features to give drones the thing they need most – a good place to land. This week, Modern Shipper sat down with O’Toole to talk residential deliveries, hot wings and the iPhone.
David versus Goliath
To get to where they are today, O’Toole and DroneDek had to fend off some of the most powerful and influential companies and organizations in the U.S. It all started when O’Toole was driving through rural Indiana on the way home from a business trip in Chicago. He looked out his window and saw a drone hovering over a cornfield on the side of the road.
“I was daydreaming and I just started thinking about drone delivery. And then I thought, OK, the drone’s the easy part, the glamorous part, right? But where’s all this stuff gonna end up?”
By this point, O’Toole only had about 30 minutes left on his drive, and he frantically tried to latch onto the ideas floating around in his head. As soon as he got home, he got to work.
“By the time I walked in my house, my wife was there and I just ran by her going, ‘I gotta get to my office real quick.’ So I ran down there and I just started debriefing myself on my computer,” he recounted.
Immediately, he began putting ideas into words and images: a heating and cooling cargo area, a notification system, a charging station, a motorized sliding door.
In the past, O’Toole had been beaten to the punch by some intimidating competition. He was shut out of one product idea by General Motors, which filed for a patent several months before he did, and Sony undercut him on a second idea by just a month. This time, though, O’Toole wanted to taste victory. He didn’t conduct a patent search or file a provisional patent – within one week of coming up with the idea for DroneDek, he had filed for the real deal.
Fast-forward three years and O’Toole got a call from his patent attorney. Bad news, the attorney told him; he’d have to write a check because his patent had been approved. Eureka! But once it was issued, O’Toole discovered something even more remarkable. He had beaten Amazon to the patent by just nine days and the Postal Service by just two weeks. O’Toole had taken a risk rushing his creative process to get the patent filed, but he had finally gotten his win.
“The thing that drives me the most is I don’t want to be 85 years old, sitting at a cubicle someday, working for somebody else, maxed out and thinking, ‘What would have happened if I tried that?’” he told Modern Shipper.
The mailbox of the future
While the patent authorities reviewed his application, O’Toole couldn’t do much besides wait.
“Before [the patent] was issued, I was kind of in limbo. I’m a little guy in Indiana, I’m not Amazon or somebody, right? So I was kind of in limbo as far as spending money and developing.”
But behind the scenes, he continued to fiddle with the project, improving it little by little. By the time the patent was issued, O’Toole was overflowing with ideas. He secured another patent for an updated version of the DroneDek in 2019 and currently has four more that are under review, two in the U.S. and two in the international Patent Cooperation Treaty.
Having undergone three generations of prototyping, DroneDek is in its minimum viable product (MVP) phase, with the company securing an MVP unit and working on production of 22 more. With production ramping up, O’Toole is ready to show the world what DroneDek can do.
“We are consolidating all delivery to one point, which means we’re envisioning an interface for robotic delivery, unmanned driverless vehicle delivery, aerial drone delivery as well as conventional delivery.”
In order to do that, O’Toole has loaded up DroneDek with seemingly endless capabilities and features.
The mailbox has a heating and cooling system within its cargo hold that will enable deliveries of food, beverages and pharmaceuticals among other sensitive shipments. It’s linked to an authentication software that validates deliveries with an electronic “handshake,” ensuring that the right drone is delivering to the right mailbox. O’Toole says the company is also looking to integrate with DocuSign to enable remote signatures for accepting certified or sensitive mail.
Each DroneDek is equipped with livestream video and Bluetooth capabilities to tag and track items as they move through the system, and the company is even looking to add facial recognition to those capabilities. The DroneDek app includes a 9-1-1 button that calls emergency services and alerts first responders with flashing red and white lights on the mailbox. All of the mailbox’s surveillance features will require the user to opt-in, giving them the option of using DroneDek with or without them.
To open DroneDek, you use your smartphone like a secure fob, and O’Toole is also debating including a fingerprint or retinal scanner. The mailboxes are treated with an ultraviolet curing process that sterilizes them to assuage fears of COVID transmission from interaction.
Another important feature of DroneDek is its built-in charging station, which O’Toole sees being used for more than just drones.
“The biggest impediment to drone delivery is battery life. So we defeated that and created a limitless range, because every DroneDek has a built-in charging station,” he explained. “Not only are we set up for charging aerial commercial drones, but we envision being able to charge EVs, Lime and Bird scooters – we can disrupt the whole charging industry.”
DroneDek also makes returns a breeze. All users have to do is hit the return icon in the app, scroll through the transaction history, pick the item to return and DroneDek will notify a courier service to pick it up. There’s no need to weigh it, measure it or print a label – just place the item in the DroneDek and it will handle everything. Like the surveillance features, the data-storing features of DroneDek are enabled through a user opt-in.
And to boot, while DroneDek’s current iteration still requires a pilot, O’Toole says he’s looking to make the entire operation function on its own.
“We think things will be better when we go autonomous,” he said. “We’re ready for that with our technology. We’ve developed the APIs for that, we’re ready to get that going, and I think it’ll be even more impressive.”
Hot wings take flight
With an MVP and a pair of patents in tow, O’Toole and DroneDek have gotten to work demonstrating their product with a pair of eye-catching pilot projects in August.
The company helped deliver snacks and refreshments to golfers on the 10th hole at the Lakes of Taylor Golf Club in Taylor, Michigan, in conjunction with Airspace Link and Zing. Working with Zing again, DroneDek also delivered hot wings in Lawrence, Indiana, for a group of hungry first responders at a wing-eating contest for the city’s Community Safety Day.
Most recently, the company was in South Bend, Indiana, flying burritos from Leo’s Family Restaurant to a DroneDek at the American Legion in nearby Lakeville.
“I can tell you firsthand from our community members that have attended each of these events – they all thought it was awesome. People put more money in the company after seeing it in person. It was a lot of excitement and a lot of interaction.”
O’Toole mentioned people giving the company money after the demonstrations – that’s because DroneDek runs a crowdfunded investor model. The company already boasts more than 4,500 investors as part of the campaign. Another way DroneDek has involved the community? By giving away mailboxes for free in key markets.
“By doing that, we’re going to pull all the shippers and deliverers onto our platform because everybody’s going to have a DroneDek in those markets. And there’s nothing more compelling than a customer telling their vendor how they want them to do something.”
DroneDek allows some folks to test out its product for free for up to two years before giving them the option of signing up for a $10 monthly subscription. The company is working on producing 4,000 mailboxes to be deployed in Lawrence some time next year.
According to O’Toole, the main thing holding back DroneDek is the United States’ lack of regulation for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. He thinks the country tends to move slower in these areas because it wants to be safe, but also that progress is being made – just take a look at some of our previous Drone Disruptors.
Regulations permitting, O’Toole thinks DroneDek will ultimately become “the conduit to your life.”
“I always say it’s kind of a pop culture moment. You take a picture of your family right now and everybody’s on their iPhone – nobody’s looking at the camera, right? This has the ability to insinuate itself into the fabric of our lives every day in the same way that the iPhone has.”