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A2Z Drone Delivery CTO explains the role hardware plays in last-mile UAV deliveries

A2Z Drone Delivery is a technology provider that designs and builds hardware for the drone delivery industry. Originally, the company began by building a drone winch, which is a mechanical device used to pull, lift or move heavy objects by winding a cable or rope around a rotating drum. It typically consists of a motor or hand crank to supply power, allowing for the controlled release or retraction of the cable or rope.

Evan Hertafeld, the CTO of A2Z Drone Delivery, explained that they were the first organisation to bring a commercial-grade drone winch to market, which was also coincidentally their first product launch as well. 

They saw a lot of initial traction with industry players looking to move into the drone delivery game that was in need of a reliable and tested winch specific to drone-based applications. This was surprisingly good news for the team, who saw a lot of traction for this product almost immediately after launching it. Eventually, the product was adapted for a variety of use cases, including residential delivery, search and rescue, medical and intersite logistics, among other applications. 

They collected feedback from their initial users and revamped the product, releasing both a second and third versions of the drone delivery winch that are both better than the first. These findings also helped inspire the team to create a vehicle around the winch as well as a drone platform to fly. Evan explains, “we built the drone around the winch to get the most out of it.”

How big is the drone winch market?

While it might seem like a niche product for a niche industry, Evan explained that there are two broad facets that make up their customer base: 

  1. Those who are looking into the future and trying to prove a specific concept before value generation begins, like commercial food delivery
  2. Current applications, like intersite logistical delivery

Commercial drone delivery and logistics

Initially, an early partnership with DroneUp helped them to validate these concepts with real-world deliveries being made to customers with their products; however, the most revenue is still being generated from excited investors who still believe that drone-based deliveries are going to sweep us into the future. When it comes to revenue, Evan explained, “as a hardware provider, that still fuels us because we're getting our stuff out there, and we're getting paid for it.”

Still, he mentioned that they want to keep their eyes on places where drone delivery can already be used today to deliver real value, like in intersite logistics delivery. For industries where any amount of downtime can cost billions and current solutions involve driving a truck around a busy factory floor, every minute involves money down the drain. Drone-based deliveries prove a solution to this, which can replace current intersite logistics methods with point-to-point aerial solutions. This allows their customers to cut out unnecessary downtime that can have a huge savings value and is a provable use case in the current regulatory environment. 

Product launch cycles of a drone winch

Contrary to what those outside a hardware perspective might think, the product launch cycle of a drone winch is relatively complex. Most customers that A2Z Drone Delivery currently have are people who basically just own the tech and use it in-house before they decide to use it for future applications or not. Evan did explain that it’s the larger orders that fuel the business in the end. 

The most valuable thing that informs the team’s development is how many different ways the product can be connected back to actual drone delivery operations. That includes competing specs, weight, power, strength and durability, among other factors. At the beginning and without the experience that they have now, it was unclear which of these they needed to focus on, which is what makes their first version of the product so valuable. 

One learning Evan shared with us during the interview was that the team was focused primarily on the time they spent onsite. They wanted to decrease that time to increase the value to the customer, which allowed them to initially speak to a lot of clients due to the value proposition the application provided. Still, practically speaking, the visual of the actual drone in action was a bit startling to people, as the system would appear to be falling from the sky before catching a package shortly before hitting the ground. Although a large portion of time was saved through this method, and the device had been able to capture the package each time, the visual was too shocking when demonstrated. 

The payloads would often contain highly valuable items, so while the time savings got the team in the door, they slowed down the dropping mechanism afterwards to make the process less shocking for the users. 

A2Z Drone Delivery in the future: horizontal growth opportunities

When we asked Evan what plans the company has for growth in the future, he told us that the goal was to grow horizontally and broaden their reach to peripheral pieces of technology that help other providers succeed. They can also see themselves moving vertically from a hardware provider to a service provider, but with both goals currently being planned, only time will tell how things continue. 

The main benefit they have going for them is their lean structure, which allows them to adapt and leverage the traction they’re currently getting to make quick decisions with slow turnaround times. When we spoke to him, he said that they’re in a bigger development cycle currently, and we’ll need to see what happens during and after this cycle to understand how the company will move next. 

We can see this move in a recent article from DroneLife, where A2Z Drone Delivery announced plans to expand its Ground Zero Test Facility in Shanghai's Anji County to test new drone solutions under real-life conditions. The company is currently performing beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, conducting autonomous residential deliveries of various items. 

The future of the drone industry is in commercial delivery

Evan ended the interview by explaining his view on the future of the drone industry, where he sees a lot of success coming from the larger companies who are able to produce more in-house compared to working with others in the ecosystem. The main benefit of doing this is the ability to open up the entire end-to-end process for regulators to gain faster approvals and impress them with the capabilities inherent in larger business practices. 

Larger organisations, as Evan explained, also have the ability to gain more legal approvals and lobby with the FAA for resources and demonstrate a higher level of adaptability in processes than smaller organisations who depend on third parties for hardware or software needs. Without a larger market of people to buy these products from, it means that organisations are stuck in how adaptable they can be without the support of investors. This has the industry looking towards bigger and well-backed players as they push the regulatory lines further and further.

These are just examples in heavily regulated spaces, like commercial drone delivery at scale. For more niche applications, like intersite logistics, there are fewer regulatory requirements, which allows smaller companies to step in and offer solutions. It’s in this area that Evan sees a lot of promise as opposed to the highly-legislated areas.

About A2Z Drone Delivery

A2Z Drone Delivery is a drone delivery project that originated at Brown University in 2016 and is now based in Los Angeles. The company's patent portfolio includes a drone delivery mechanism and a long-endurance flight platform. A2Z aims to develop innovative solutions for safe, accurate and non-invasive drone deliveries, addressing consumer protection concerns and providing commercial logistics operators with a reliable delivery ecosystem. Their drone delivery hardware conducts deliveries from altitude to ensure safety and privacy while minimising noise.

A2Z's commercial drone delivery solutions are used by operators worldwide. Their integrated cargo drone, the RDST and the Rapid Delivery System drone winch are employed in various applications, such as search and rescue missions and offshore energy installations and logistics deliveries. The RDST can carry any size payload without the need for speciality payload boxes, integrating into any logistics workflow. The user interface simplifies cargo deliveries with pre-planned routing and one-touch autonomous mission execution.

About Evan Hertafeld

Evan Hertafeld is the CTO and co-founder of A2Z Drone Delivery, where he has been working full-time since January 2021. He considers himself a passionate and curious developer with a diverse skill set, including web development, embedded systems, algorithms, data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence, hardware and electronics.

Prior to A2Z, Evan was a freelance developer in the Greater Los Angeles Area. He worked at Google as a software engineer and as a software engineering intern. During his time at Google, he was involved in C++ and Python development, building predictive systems for ad traffic using simulation, statistics and machine learning.

Evan also served as an instructor and lead instructor at iD Tech Camps from January 2013 to January 2015, where he developed lessons and taught STEM courses to children aged 9-17. His educational background includes a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Quantic School of Business and Technology. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University, where he was active in the Creative Machines Lab, and a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Oberlin College, where he was a founder of OC3D, Oberlin College's Makerspace, and participated in rock climbing and improv comedy.

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