Image: iFood/Courtesy

Brazilian iFood takes the first step to deploy drones for meal delivery

The project's experimental phase should start in October in Campinas and the foodtech sees potential for the air modal in 200 Brazilian cities

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When Brazilian foodtech startup iFood created an innovation area in 2019, several projects emerged. Some moved on and others were shelved. One of them, which placed a drone within the logistics supply chain, emerged as one of the most promising, but a partner with equipment that fulfilled the mission was missing. Despite conversations with foreign companies and participation in industry fairs in various corners of the world, it was in Franca, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, that the company found Speedbird Aero, a 100% Brazilian company with technology capable of transforming science fiction into reality.

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The negotiations evolved quickly and soon the two companies faced the challenge of employing an unmanned aircraft to deliver food. Among the various obstacles was the adaptation of the equipment to ensure safety in the operation and pass the screening tests of the National Civil Aviation Agency (Anac). At that point AL Drones, a specialist firm in drone design and certification and responsible for structural and system changes, also entered the picture. Together, the three companies worked for 11 months until obtaining, in early August this year, the Experimental Flight Authorization Certificate (CAVE, its acronym in Portuguese).

With this authorization, iFood will be able, on an experimental basis, to deliver using drones. But anyone who thinks the aircraft is going to reach the customer’s window or door is wrong. The equipment will serve to streamline part of the operation, complementing current means of transport, such as motorcycles, bicycles and scooters. The city of Campinas and Shopping Iguatemi Campinas were chosen for the testing period.

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Although complex, the operation is simple to understand, and they are separated in two stages. The first is a 400-meter route that will connect the food court of the shopping center to iFood Hub, a structure concentrating orders. This journey, which takes about 12 minutes to be covered on foot, will be done in just two. From that point on, the couriers will take the order to the customer. It is also from the iFood Hub that the order, in a special packaging, coupled with a drone, can fly to a droneport of a condominium complex 2.5 kilometers away. When it lands, the delivery man using another vehicle will take it to the customer’s door – the journey between the mall and the droneport will take, on average, four minutes, at least six times less than by land.

iFood’s logistics innovation solutions manager, Fernando Martins, estimates that the effective start of drone deliveries will occur in October. With the aircraft, he has no doubt that the customer experience will be better, with fast delivery and hotter and fresher meals. Not to mention that, in this way, restaurants will be able to serve customers who are further away.

“We have this authorization, iFood is the only food delivery company in Latin America that can operate it and we will take this opportunity to validate as many issues as possible during this period,” says Martins. He adds that customers will be able to follow on the app all the drone’s movements, in real time.

It is important to be super transparent and show the customer that the order is on that journey leg on a drone, he needs to know that it is going in a straight line and the app will show that it is being carried out by a drone.

Fernando Martins, logistics innovation solutions manager at iFood

Safety of the operation

The main concern since the beginning of conversations between iFood, Speedbird Aero and AL Drones was ensuring that the entire operation did not pose any risk to people involved in the delivery and also to those on the ground and unaware of the flight. For this reason, several modifications were made to the aircraft model DLV-1. In addition to double systems, the aircraft also carries a parachute. “We decided to bring the aviation philosophy of certification, safety and reliability to drones and that matched the need for Speedbird Aero at the time,” says partner and co-founder of AL Drones, André Arruda.

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A characteristic of these experimental flights is that they are automated, that is, there is no pilot controlling each movement of the aircraft. The route is programmed in advance and the pilot must monitor the flight and intervene if necessary. Another aspect is that the pilot has no visual contact with the drone and this is the great advance of the authorization granted by Anac: so-called BVLOS flights (Beyond Visual Line of Sight). In other countries where drone delivery takes place, such as in the United States, authorizations are only for EVLOS (Extended Visual Line Of Sight).

Because of these peculiarities, the certification was celebrated by the industry in Brazil. The regulation of drones in Brazil is from 2017 and much has evolved since then, forcing Anac to review and adjust the rules – the process receiving subsidies and soon a new text will be published and finalized. There are, however, cases that are beyond regulation. And this, particularly, is the case of drone deliveries.

The regulation itself ends up being reactive in nature. This type of service maturation is important for the regulation to move forward. CAVE is important to establish a safe condition in the operation and this has an international relevance.

Ailton José de Oliveira Júnior, ANAC’S REGULATION EXPERT,

The nearest future

iFood considers experimental flights as the starting point for something that can become commonplace within the supply chain. It is based on this testing period that the company will assess efficiency and impacts on the operation to find a better way to incorporate drones at scale. “If everything goes well, we will apply this to more routes, extend it to other cities with potential and follow the same logic. We serve more than a thousand cities on iFood and clearly 200 of them could receive the technology ”, projects Martins.

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This expansion, however, depends not only on the results obtained with the experimental phase, but also on the advance of regulation on drones in Brazil and on the technology itself. The final step is to make aircrafts talk to each other in airspace, within the concept of UTM (Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management), and ensure safety in operation and for people on the ground. “The product that will fly over a city needs to be as safe as an airplane. As long as it does not reach levels comparable to aviation, there will be restrictions and only specific actions. In achieving this, the other major pillar is the integration of airspace, which guarantees minimal separation so that there is no collision. But it takes time”, analyzes Arruda, from AL Drones.

What is certain is that drone delivery will not be limited to food delivery. Other sectors can take advantage of the speed and efficiency of unmanned aircraft. It is, in fact, what will guarantee the growth of this market. “The path is open and in the near future we will have scale, including for deliveries from other segments, such as in medicine, with transport of drugs, organs and blood”, says the CEO of MundoGEO and creator of the DroneShow fair, the main connection channel of the drone market in the country, Emerson Granemann