Drone company will go slow with its food delivery in Holly Springs

The Israeli company that plans to begin using drones to deliver food in Holly Springs this fall says it wants to start slowly, with two or three simple routes that wouldn’t fly after dark or over houses.

Flytrex doesn’t expect to launch its first meal into the skies over town for two to three months, said Wes Shover, head of U.S. operations for the company. Before then, Flytrex still needs to firm up where it will take off and land and which restaurants will make their food available for delivery.

Flytrex also needs the Federal Aviation Administration and the N.C. Department of Transportation to sign off on its program.

‘”We’re only going to be flying in pre-approved, surveyed flight routes and authorized flying zones,” Shover told Town Council members Tuesday night. “We’re not going to be delivering in people’s backyards tomorrow.”

Holly Springs would be among the first places in the country where packages are delivered by drone, under a three-year federal test program. The town volunteered to take part in the program, and Flytrex hopes residents will see their potential role in aviation history as a point of pride.

But town council members say they’ve already heard some unease from residents and urged the company to be very open about what it’s doing.

“A lot of the feedback I’ve received is pretty apprehensive,” said council member Cheri Ann Lee, noting concerns about privacy and how drones work. “There’s so many ‘what ifs’ and ‘how’s this going to work?’ ”

Shover said the Flytrex drones will not be watching people from above.

“We don’t have a camera,” he said. “We’re literally just carrying the goods.”

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Flytrex hopes that someday its drones will be able to deliver food and other items over a wide area and at night. But for now, the company must abide by current FAA restrictions on drones, which include keeping them within site of the operator. In addition to flying short distances, the hovering drones will lower packages from a tether rather than landing.

The company has identified Holly Springs Towne Center, off the N.C. 55 Bypass, as a possible launch site. From there, drones could fly to one or two landing sites in the nearby Forest Springs neighborhood without going over any houses or buildings, though the exact routes have not been chosen yet, Shover said.

Whichever neighborhood Flytrex flies to, Shover said, the company will work with residents to find suitable landing sites and make sure people understand how it works.

“Public engagement is really important to us,” he said. “If we don’t have buy-in, then we don’t have people ordering.”

Food delivery in Holly Springs is part of a broader test project in the Triangle put together by NCDOT to see how drones could be used to carry medical supplies around the state. The project, which involves several companies, was one of 10 accepted into the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, launched by the Trump administration last fall to determine how drones could be used for commercial purposes in the U.S.

The companies involved in the project are young start-ups, in an industry that didn’t exist until a few years ago. Flytrex launched what it calls the world’s first autonomous urban drone delivery system just last year, when it teamed up with the eCommerce company Aha to deliver food in Reykjavik, Iceland. They began with one route, Shover said, and now have 14 drop-off sites.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling