Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on FreightWaves.com.
For residents of Sanibel Island, Florida, there’s only one way in and one way out of town: the Sanibel Causeway bridge.
But when Hurricane Ian devastated the state in late September and early October, that lone access point was destroyed. Thousands of people were left stranded on the island, with access to the mainland limited to the occasional helicopter or barge delivering supplies.
Last Wednesday, the causeway reopened to residents with temporary repairs. But the key word there is temporary. Work to repair the damage is still ongoing, and residents, businesses and private contractors can only use the bridge between Wednesday and Sunday at limited hours.
However, a trio of drone delivery companies are filling in the gaps.
Zing Drone Solutions, based locally in St. Petersburg, last week partnered with Los Angeles-based A2Z Drone Delivery and San Rafael, California-based Skyway to deliver on-demand meals from the World Central Kitchen to residents on the island. The mission ran over the weekend and concluded Monday.
“Hearing about people stranded on the island with limited access to resources made us realize there is an opportunity for our companies to help out by providing an expedited drone delivery service,” Ian Annase, CEO of Zing, told Modern Shipper.
Almost immediately, Annase reached out to A2Z and Skyway to begin preparations. The A2Z team quickly shipped its drone from California and flew to Zing’s headquarters to run tests. The following week, Skyway arrived on nearby Pine Island to monitor the airspace.
“There are a lot of pieces that are required to make a drone delivery operation successful,” Annase said. “Scoping out the area with the A2Z team the weekend prior and performing some test deliveries helped us identify what we needed. We brought our solar-powered generators to power all computers and air traffic monitoring devices because there was no power on the launch or landing sides.”
Zing facilitated the deliveries, opening a phone line that customers could call to reserve a meal and confirm a pickup time. Meals were then prepared by World Central Kitchen at a site on nearby Pine Island.
From there, drones equipped with A2Z’s second-generation rapid delivery system (RDS2) picked them up and carried them across the water to a central drop-off point at 1177 Causeway Blvd. About a dozen deliveries were completed during the operation.
The RDS2, launched in August, is a winch-and-tether system that can be retrofitted to other drones (including nondelivery drones) and carry up to 22 pounds. That means that unlike most small delivery drones, aircraft with A2Z’s RDS2 can carry multiple meals at a time.
The system is also designed with safety and privacy in mind. Using a winch and tether, the RDS2 makes deliveries from about 100 feet up, keeping the aircraft far from people and other hazards.
“With debris, dangling power lines, etc. possibly cluttering delivery locations, it was important for the team to be able to drop off those payloads from altitude in order to keep spinning propellers away from potential snags,” Aaron Zhang, CEO of A2Z, told Modern Shipper.
A2Z also produces its own drone, the RDST, that can fly up to 9 miles round trip. It’s billed as an “off-the-shelf” solution that is compatible with any retailer’s packaging, so long as it fits within the aircraft’s cargo hold.
Although conditions on Sanibel Island have improved in recent weeks, the missions conducted by Zing, A2Z, and Skyway are demonstrating how drones can be part of the connective tissue of the last mile.
In addition to heavy traffic on the causeway, Sanibel residents are also contending with a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. EDT curfew and 20 mph speed limits across the island. For many, that’s essentially eliminated the ability to get food on demand unless it’s coming from down the street.
But with delivery drones adding an extra layer of transportation, damaged roads can’t sever a customer’s proximity to restaurants, grocery stores, and other shops.
“We learned a lot from the operation and proved that drone delivery can be deployed in disaster areas to assist relief efforts, especially to barrier islands that can only be reached by water or air,” Annase said.
Even in normal circumstances, drones could help islanders avoid the heavy congestion that often comes with living in a place with one or two access roads. Rather than take the 40-minute round trip journey to get their favorite food from the mainland, Sanibel residents could instead get it delivered via drone in a fraction of the time.
That goes for other hard-to-reach places too. For example, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a Native American reservation and long-standing drone testing partner of the Federal Aviation Administration, is using drones to provide better access to amenities like food and health care.
For years, drones have been used to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Now Floridians have gotten a firsthand look at what they can do.
“Ian [Annase] and the team he pulled together for this hurricane relief effort put a lot of hard work into making this mission happen,” Zhang said. “I can’t say enough about how quickly they all jumped to the ready to try to provide some assistance in the wake of the hurricane. We were proud of the way this diverse group of volunteers came together on short notice to make these deliveries a reality.”
For more coverage on drone delivery logistics, go to Freightwaves.com.