Interview about social acceptance and drone certification with Bobby Healy, CEO of Manna

It has already been 2 years since our last interview. What happened in these last 2 years with Manna?

Two years, but it feels like twenty years! This industry is moving so quickly: regulations have really cristalized the regulatory landscape in Europe. From our own point of view and from Manna’s point of view, we’ve significantly progressed during this time. When I spoke to you last, we were flying in a small town in Galway on the west coast of Ireland with about 10 000 people but just under a year ago we moved from there to a 35 000 people town in Dublin. We’ve been delivering very diverse products, from pharmacy to groceries or coffees. The community which we provide this service is very positively disposed to our activities. During our last project, we’ve delivered to 38% of the households and now at our new location we’ve already delivered to 22% of the homes. Throughout this entire period, we could observe very strong and repeated signs of great customer response and uptake. Overall, it’s been a very hectic two years for us and we’ve also gone a long way towards the design verification of our new aircraft. At the same time, the interaction with the community is amazing and always very constructive, and our public facing activities have been very positively welcomed. Finally, the real work is actually internal to the company in developing the new aircraft and getting it certified. That’s the real unlock, not only for our business but for the entire industry.

It’s fantastic to hear that the community feedback you received was great! Now, if I want to talk a bit more about that: so far, you’re the only company I know that is flying in Europe with such a high amount of flights. I’m wondering what the first reaction is when someone orders an item by drone and gets it delivered? What is the feedback that you receive?

So, about the first reaction: Most people in Ireland know about us by now. It’s a small country with only 5 million people and we’re very well known because it’s such an exciting and interesting technology company. This means that when we announce that we’re going to provide a new town with our service, we immediately get a significant volume of app downloads and people trying to order but we initially can’t keep up with the demand since we are able to perform between 100 and 200 flights a day at most. With our experience, we noticed that the first people who try and use our service are young. They are mostly kids ordering strawberry jellies, chocolate or milkshakes. It’s kind of a “let’s get the drone to our house on Sunday” type of purchase, but very soon thereafter, adults who’ve seen they can order a nice croissant will do it too. The first orders tend to be demo orders from people trying it out of curiosity. Then very quickly, as in the next order, we see more practicality involved and people start ordering things they really need, for example from Tesco, our groceries partner, or more commonly our number one most ordered item: coffee. This sums up how people generally get used to requesting our service. Obviously, we weren’t expecting that; we were expecting night-time medicine, pharmacy, headache medication for children or paracetamol, first necessity products and more essential items. In reality, we do get a lot of these pharmacy orders as well but they don’t represent the majority of our deliveries. The biggest part of our business remains everyday random things that people need. For example, we once had a journalist over doing a report on us and as this person was watching, an order came in for one onion. Someone who orders an onion at 6pm really needed an onion. This might sound a bit crazy to be using the airspace to deliver an onion but the alternative for this person would be to do without an onion or get into their car and drive a couple of miles and spend half an hour more of their time to get the same onion. We’re seeing very interesting behaviour, early adoption and early normalisation of drone delivery, which is very exciting! People now directly go to “this is how I get stuffs now!”. It’s not the car, it’s not the road, there’s no CO2, it’s automation and it works so we’re very pleased not only with the adoption but also with the general behaviour around the product. 

I couldn’t agree more with you. I think the key here is that this technology solves problems. 

Talking about regulations in a nutshell: Do you think the regulation evolved in the last couple of years? Did Covid help build on the early successes regarding regulations and did it help you to scale? 

Manna is one of the five most-known drone delivery companies and being based in Europe gives us a significant advantage. EASA has been very public about the fact that they want drone deliveries to happen. They are willing to support it and they want commerce to catch up with regulations. It was said in a Keynote in Amsterdam that EASA is ready and the challenge was set to the industry to be ready. This was an interesting statement in strong contrast with the current situation in the United States for example, where the timeline, the approach and the structure are less certain. Even though they’re making great progress, when looking at Europe we already have our LUC. It wasn’t easy but there’s a very clear process on how to achieve an LUC to get an aircraft to fly at SAIL IV which is what we’re aiming for. There is now a well-defined path to reach that milestone which is called design verification. It’s a pragmatic combination of traditional aviation oversight and review of aircraft reliability and airworthiness combined with a more pragmatic look. We are flying a 25kg aircraft that does not carry people, therefore the design organization approval and the full type certification process are not really appropriate for our type of operations. I think EASA, like any regulator or organization looking into this space, is still learning but is willing to make steps forward to enable innovation like Manna. We’re still a tiny company, we were founded by investors and we have to beg for money all the time. We’re not Amazon, we’re not Google - But we are a 100% European company that is enabled by that regulatory process. Simply put: if we didn’t benefit from these steps forward with regulation we would not exist because we would not be able to get funding while larger companies such as Amazon and Google that have great products are going to win. What enables small innovative companies, risk takers like us and others, is clarity in the regulatory timeline. 

It is for sure our common benefit to boost innovation in Europe and that’s definitely the way moving forward. Now, what’s next on your side? 

Yes, I always give away our secrets! When I honestly reflect on what we are doing as a company, all of our trials are great for education: they educate local vendors, they educate local communities and they’re very important because the drone industry has come from a very dark space where lots of bad things happen, to now delivering onions, ice creams and coffees. We have to bring communities, governments and population on board with us and we do a good job in this matter, as do our friends at other companies. This educational aspect of our activities is very important, but what can really turn us from an experiment into an actually profitable and successful company is safety. Safety is really all that matters and unfortunately it’s a topic that does not always get discussed enough in public. We as an industry do not only take safety into consideration but rather have it as our main focus, and so does everybody who is reading this. We know what safety means, we know how difficult it is, and we know how difficult it is to scale it as well. With our company, our main goal is to get a certifiable aircraft that we know with clear conscience we can fly a million times a day without worrying. We need to be completely sure that there is no remaining issue. Of course, everything that is needed to achieve this is extremely difficult: the discipline, the energy, the process, the governance, and the cost. It involves and requires a lot of time and resources to get it done so that’s what me and my team are focused on. We’ve done a good job today with our new aircraft, which nobody has seen yet: it’s purely and only designed for safety. It’s not designed to look good or to fly far, it’s really just designed to do something simple: fly from A to B safely. This is the objective we’re focused on and along that journey we expect a number of steps that are pretty well known and well defined in the design verification process. We’re doing that in Europe, not in the US, and here we’re delighted to know clearly what we need to do. In the path we’re on, our responsibilities are clear, and so are EASA’s. At the moment, we’re almost singularly devoted to that design verification as we want to be the first company in Europe to receive it and fly over populated areas with a design verified aircraft at SAIL IV. We think we will be there soon and we’re very excited about the future. Nevertheless, there are still other problems to solve, for example Detect-and-Avoid (DAA) or U-space implementation, but actually the most difficult one is how to fly at scale safely. We believe we have solved this problem and once we prove that to the necessary regulatory bodies we’ll be a real company making actual profit, probably in the next 2 to 3 years.

For the full interview with Bobby Healy, check out our video interview with him here:

Are you a decision-maker?

Are you Interested in being at the forefront of drone technology? Sponsor our exclusive, invite-only event Aerial Cities, where industry leaders, government officials, and key players discuss the integration of drones into urban landscapes.