Tag: Drones

From Drones Beware to Flight Aware – AiP 005

Read Time: 2 minutes

As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations get ever-greater, the airspace is set to become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. There are also concerns over privacy with drones flying above people and private property, or too close to restricted areas like airports and other critical infrastructure.

At the same time, regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management, or UTM.

In this episode I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace. Of late, Unifly has been getting a lot of press, through its involvement in numerous demonstration in Europe and elsewhere, which has also created a lot of interest from VCs and potential customers – the CAAs and ANSPs.

Of course, there have been lessons learned along the way, from first needing to build a system for mission critical applications that is an open platform, upon which you can then start adding user interfaces. At the same time and most importantly – listen very carefully to the customer. And, as a ground-breaking company, one must be an evangelist and lead with a vision of the future when it comes to management of the airspace.

For the full transcript of this episode, please refer to the Vantage Point interview.

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To the City Hopper, Not the Chopper – AiP 004

Read Time: < 1 minute

Ever been frustrated by heavy traffic when you are in a rush to get to that all-important meeting? We all have! So, instead of being stuck in traffic gridlock, what if you could rise above it all, and quickly and comfortably fly to your urban destination in a 2-person pod the size of a Smart car?  That’s the idea behind Volocopter – an urban air taxi – and the brainchild of Alexander Zosel and Stephan Wolf, two entrepreneurs with a vision for urban air mobility. I guess the Jetsons must’ve influenced them!

In this episode I speak with Jan-Hendrik Boelens, chief technology officer at Volocopter, about the massive potential of urban aircraft systems, and the challenges that still lie ahead of the company as it moves towards commercial certification.

If you’re listening to this episode during your commute… maybe you’re stuck in traffic… take a look above you and imagine what it would be like to hop over it all!




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Meeting a Medical Need with Speed – AiP 003

Read Time: < 1 minute

More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain or gaps in infrastructure. Over 2.9 million children under age five die every year due to a lack of access to vaccines and essential medicines. Up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood. These are the sad truths that Zipline set out to address by rapidly delivering lifesaving medical products directly where they are needed.

In this interview I speak with Will Hetzler, Co-Founder and COO of Zipline, who I first met in Rwanda during the AviationAfrica Conference we were both speaking at in 2017. The California-based company has since expanded to Ghana and is actively being courted by VC’s and celebrities alike, like U2’s Bono!

Learn how this company has been pioneering delivery drone services in Africa, which could one day provide an essential service closer to your home.

For the full transcript of this episode, please refer to the Vantage Point interview.




If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

Please subscribe to the Aviation Innovation Podcast on your preferred podcasting app.

From Drones Beware to Flight Aware with Unifly

Read Time: 12 minutes

Marc Kegelaers, CEO, Unifly – www.unifly.aero

How one company is raising the level of awareness in the airspace

As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, the airspace will become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. At the same time,  regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called UTM, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management.

In this installment of the Vantage Point interview series on innovation in aviation, I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace.

Q:  How did you initially come across the technology and the application of the technology that’s now Unifly?

My background is in aviation. I’m a flight instructor, and for 10 years I ran a flight school that trained professional pilots. While there, I started a department to train pilots for aircraft without pilots, i.e. drones. That was bringing in some publicity for the school, and at an exhibition in Asia, I came across a few young guys – air traffic controllers and a scientist – who had this idea for a traffic management system for drones. They already had a good prototype, which apparently had won some international prizes. They wanted to create a company and asked if I was prepared to be their CEO. I thought, “Well, this is a good idea!” I looked at the technology, what they were doing, and their plans and ambitions. That was in July three years ago, when I decided to join in as a CEO and shareholder. The company was started a month later, and two months after I started to work full time for Unifly. I had to unwind my function as CEO of the flight academy, so I handed that over to a successor, then started to work on the Unifly initiative full-time in October 2015.

Q:  We are experiencing a renaissance of innovation – digitalization, artificial intelligence, autonomization,…. How do you see Unifly within this broader picture of innovation and what’s going on outside of your immediate area of play?

I’d like to think that we are a ground-breaking company. We are very innovative. If you look at what is happening in the world, there’s a fourth Industrial Revolution going on whereby many activities will be driven by robotics and artificial intelligence. We are very much a part of that.

One of the key challenges that exists today is that you have this drone technology which is advancing at a very high pace – and everyone knows that drone technology and robotics are going to be very important – but specifically with drones, they are coming into a world where there is already a lot of traffic. Drones will have to comply with the regulations and rules of the aviation, so it remains safe.

The challenge we have, and I think the entire industry has, is that on one hand you have the world of aviation, which is very safety-driven, but air traffic controllers and pilots have never had to deal with drone operators. On the other hand, you have drone operators who have never been aware of the regulations and the rules that exist in aviation that make it very safe, who now want to have access to the airspace. So we have two different worlds: one relatively conservative world driven by safety, and another world which is innovative and moving very fast, not fully aware of all of the safety rules. Marrying those two totally different worlds, that’s the big challenge. But it’s now happening in aviation, and I’m sure that will happen everywhere in the world.

Look at all the challenges that are now present in the world of autonomous cars, for instance. The technology exists for cars to be driven autonomously, but how do you mix the traffic of autonomous cars with the traffic of non-autonomous cars? That’s the big challenge. In the world of aviation, we are addressing this challenge.

Q:  How do you bridge those two worlds? Does it require a change in mindset that the more traditional industries have adopted over time, or do you see the innovators having to adopt a different mindset?

It’s both. Every traditional industry has its way of doing things, which work fine. The aviation industry is very safety-minded, with good ATM (air traffic management) systems and so on and so forth, and that works fine. Now with new technology, there’s this mindset that needs to change.

Two years ago, I was at a big conference where you had CEOs of large ATM organizations, and questions were asked of the audience. One of the questions was, “Do you think technology will change the nature of your industry within the next 20 years?” I was baffled to hear one-third of the audience say, “No, we don’t think that technology will change the nature of our industry.” That, to me, says that within those classical industries, there’s still a mindset among people who do not see that there’s a lot of technology out there that can actually help them become better and automate more processes. And not only in the aviation industry – I think in many traditional industries that’s the case.

Q:  Indeed, we’ve seen the same in the car industry, until Elon Musk came along and introduced the concept of the electronic car and things started to change. Even going back to telecommunications, you had the postal, telegraph, and telephone service (or PTT) – monopoly service providers that the public was not at all happy with for the level of service and the cost. I think, only when that industry was deregulated, have we seen the kind of things that we now have, our smartphones and so forth. Do you see that kind of institutional deregulation having to take place to make real change happen in aviation? Particularly, I’m thinking about ATM and the interfacing between ATM and UTM

It will take place. What is happening is that we, as a company, are creating the technology to provide highly automated air traffic management for large amounts of autonomous devices. That’s what we’re doing. That’s where we’re going with our technology. Once you’ve done that with large numbers of autonomous drones flying in very difficult airspace, low level airspace, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that you could actually take that technology and start using it for traditional manned aviation. My guess, and I think this will happen, is that the technology we’re building now will gradually – not overnight, but gradually – find its way into the management of manned aviation.

The technology we’re using is vested in Internet technology, which makes a UTM system much more affordable and accessible than an ATM system. The technological change that happened in the telecommunications industry about 30 years ago is starting to happen in the world of aviation. The transformation will be a bit slower than what happened in telecommunications because of the safety aspect. You must be very careful that you do not innovate as rapidly as in the telecommunications industry, because you still have manned aviation transporting large numbers of people in the air. You cannot afford to have accidents. In the telecommunications industry, if you lose a data packet, well, you lose a packet. There’s no harm there. The software will say, “Oh, I lost a packet,” and it will send a new packet. In manned aviation, you cannot lose an airplane. That’s why the transition will be a bit slower, but it will come for sure.

Q:  When we look at the softer side of things – the people element – I would hazard to guess that the way Unifly is organized and how you do things is quite different from a traditional ATM technology company or an air navigation service provider. Aside from the technology, it’s also about people and how we work to get things done. I’m thinking particularly in terms of a more agile approach to software development that’s now permeating to other areas of the business. Do you see change taking place in that area as well?

Yes. To ask me purely from the perspective of the man/machine interface and the world of air traffic management, the user interfaces all assume that the person that is manning the systems has had years of training and is an ATM professional. That means it can be very complex, because the person has been trained.

Now in the world of UTM, you are interfacing with a world of people that have no knowledge, or very limited knowledge, of aviation and air traffic management. Still, you want to give them the same information as is now being used in the world of manned aviation, but in a very, very user-friendly manner. That’s one of the big transformations we are making happen.

Also, in the ATM industry or the aviation industry in general, it is expected that the number of flights will double between now and 2030. Already today we’re seeing record numbers of flights flying through the airspace, which puts a strain on the entire ATM system, because all the procedures in the world of air traffic management are manual procedures and involve people talking to people. The growth of manned aviation will require much more automation than is currently the case, and we’re building the foundation for this with UTM. So, it’s interesting times ahead.

From a development point of view, we use agile software methodology, the same methodologies as are used in developing Internet-type applications. In very short turnaround times, we use a Spring Methodology that enables us to be very quick and still have very high quality.

Q:  So, when you’ve signed up with a new client, such as an ANSP, what would be the average turnaround time to provide them with the necessary tools to start managing, or having some oversight over drones in the airspace?

From a technology point of view, not very much. The fastest we’ve done this is about six weeks. The challenge really is with the organization itself. One of the challenges that an ANSP or CAA (civil aviation authority) has is the processing of flight plans for flight approvals. There is a flight plan system that is used in manned aviation, and it involves a manual process – your flight plan gets looked at by someone, and that someone approves it. That’s based on a certain number of flights per day, per week, and so on.

Now with drones, what we’ve seen initially is that the ANSPs and the CAAs have wanted to use their existing processes of flight approvals and apply that to drones as well. But, guess what? They did not anticipate that the number of requests for drone operations would be much, much, much higher than the number for manned aviation. So, what we are providing are the tools to automate a lot of the processes within an ANSP and a CAA. However, the organization has to accept it and processes have to be created or modified so that they can work with these new tools. The delays we see, or the length of time it takes to implement our software, is not technology-related, and we already have quite a bit of technology available. It’s about presenting the technology to the client, having them work with the technology, and for their organization to define internal processes to make sure that they can use the technology as often as possible. That’s the challenge we have. Typically, we work with an ANSP, and they use our systems for a while in tests and trials – not to test and trial the technology itself, because it works – but to test and trial their internal procedures, to decide who will do what and who will have what responsibility, and how to manage the different users of the system.

Q:  Would you say that it’s then a bit of a journey for the two partners – Unifly and the client – towards solutions that are needed as part of an iterative process? In other words, there is a tendency within traditional businesses to want to buy a complete system or a complete solution as opposed to pursuing a more agile methodology of iterative testing and development. Is this mindset something you’re up against with some of the more traditional organizations you deal with?

No, in fact what we have is a complete system. But, implementing a complete system is a big, big task and we’ve created a methodology to implement the system in phases. The first phase is always, get the public informed about aviation rules and regulations, and where a drone operator can and cannot fly. That’s something that can be turned around very, very quickly. That’s usually the first phase.

The next phase is getting people to issue flight plans. We build function after function so that ultimately you get a full-blown system, possibly after a year or a year-and-a-half. The initial implementations can already be available after a few weeks. So, our experience is in fact that the ANSPs tend to want to work in a phased approach where they say, “Okay, in phase one we want to do this, then in phase two we want to do this.” The only problem with such an approach is that sometimes – as we’ve seen in other industries that have taken this approach – you can end up with piecemeal solutions. For example, just for providing information to operators they use one vendor, for tracking they use another vendor, and then for other functions, other vendors. So, they end up using isolated solutions for individual problems without thinking of the bigger picture. This usually means we have to convince an ANSP to think of the bigger picture and make sure all of the problems they want to solve are addressed in an integrated fashion rather than having a series of piecemeal solutions.

Q:  So, it’s really about the partnership relationship you build with your clients that is quite important. Having that trust there, I think would be a key issue for evolving the solutions that may need to be built. Would that be a true statement?

Yes, that’s very much a true statement. The entire process of implementing a complete UTM system with an ANSP is quite intense. Luckily we now have experience with several customers. We also are involved right now in several research programs in Europe that deal with UTM. We are seen as a company that knows about drone traffic management. We know about manned aviation because that’s the world we came from. So, we are seen by large organizations – ANSPs and CAAs – as a valuable partner that can actually bring a lot of value and knowhow to the table, helping them to tackle this quite complex UTM problem.

Q:  You’re not the only game in town, of course. There are other UTM providers. Do you see potentially, not necessarily a monopoly service provider model develop, but more of a competitive landscape where you have different systems within a certain geographic region – much like you have with the mobile phone networks where you’ve got a federation of systems able to interface with each other? Do you see that kind of a model develop eventually?

Ultimately, that will be the model, but it will take some time. The system and technology that we have developed takes that in mind. There will be in an area in a country, in a region, where there will be multiple UTM systems. So, we’ll be able to say, “Okay, I want to be a customer of A or B or C.” There will be different levels of service or different services that people can buy from different UTM service providers. Specifically, in the United States that is the model that has been chosen from day one. In Europe and other parts of the world, it’s first and foremost the ANSP that wants to make sure aviation safety is guaranteed, so they take the initiative. But ultimately, there will be a time when multiple UTM service providers will exist in a country. However, there will always be some level of oversight provided by the national aviation authority.

We must remember that the aviation authorities have the responsibility for ensuring the safety of the airspace. This responsibility does not just go away with the advent of drones. On the contrary, they now have an additional problem that they need to solve. Some ANSPs have taken the view that the only thing they want is to ensure everyone has a same exact aeronautical data, and that the ANSP does the coordination with manned aviation and all drone operator interfacing would be done by the UTM service provider. Other ANSPs have said “no” to this from the beginning, and that they want to do all of the interfacing with the drone operators as well.

Q:  It’s been an interesting ride so far, but I’m sure there have been some real challenges along the way. What are some of the lessons learned that have resulted in a different approach than originally thought?

So far, the trajectory has been quite unique in the sense that what we set out to do from the beginning, we are still thinking of doing that. One of the biggest lessons we’ve had is that initially when we started the company, we wanted to build, first of all, a product for the drone users to do planning and so on so forth, but we saw very quickly that that was not the best approach.

The best approach was that first and foremost we have to have a good, solid backbone that will be able to process large amounts of information, and be able to process that information in real time as the system for mission critical applications. Once you have that and you’ve created that as an open platform, then you start adding user interfaces. That’s something we learned after a few months. It’s having that very solid backbone – that open platform – that made us quite successful.

The other thing that we’ve learned is – listen to the customer, listen very carefully to what he wants because he’s very clever. We also learned that as a ground-breaking company – a very innovative company – you must be an evangelist. This is new technology and we’re probably the first to build a lot of experience in UTM. I think one of the roles that we have as a company is to say, “Okay, the management of drones is a very complex thing to do, but these are the ways to do it.”

Q:  You continue to get a lot of interest, I suspect, from other entrepreneurs, but also from venture capital. How does that aspect of the business look for you?

Yes, we get a lot of press, and a lot of interest from potential customers. We literally have contacts all over the world. We get contacted by VCs quite a bit who would like to invest in our company, and by universities and such, who invite me to speak about what we do, how to create an innovative company, and how we get the message out to potential customers all over the world.

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Meeting a Medical Need with Speed

Read Time: 10 minutes

Will Hetzler, Co-Founder and COO – Zipline International Inc.

How one company is pioneering delivery drone services in Africa

More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain or gaps in infrastructure. Over 2.9 million children under age five die every year due to a lack of access to vaccines and essential medicines. Up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood. These are the sad truths that Zipline set out to address by rapidly delivering lifesaving medical products directly where they are needed. In this interview I speak with Will Hetzler, Co-Founder and COO of Zipline, who I first met in Rwanda during the AviationAfrica Conference we were both speaking at earlier this year (see my blog post of February 24, 2017.)

Q: What caused you to start Zipline? And what’s your vision for the company going forward?

To take a step back, Peter Thiel has an oft-quoted remark, where he said, “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.” For me, that is an expression of frustration at the unfulfilled potential of technology, but it’s also an allusion to technology’s incredible potential to improve the world, if investments and efforts are properly directed. Over the past century, the aviation industry has been a great example of that potential. The world has become tremendously more connected, thanks largely to a wide range of technological advances. What the internet did for the free flow of information, aviation has done for the movement of people and cargo.

But over the past couple of decades, the rate of progress has seemed to slow for aviation. As the industry matured, we’re now at a point where we have a lot of what Clayton Christensen describes as “sustaining innovation,” and few, if any, breakout products or transformational changes. That has led to a feeling of stagnation. Aviation technologies aren’t progressing as fast as they once did, which is all the more costly because aviation is a critical enabler of so many other industries. A lack of progress doesn’t just hold back the aviation industry; it slows the development of the global economy. Getting back to a time of rapid innovation and growth in aviation technologies is something that really excites me. One of the reasons why I wanted to found Zipline was my belief that transformational change is possible for aviation today, that drones will be the source of multiple disruptive innovations in the coming years, and that these developments have the potential to dramatically change the world for the better.

One interesting observation is that we’re now at a point where, with over 1,000 airlines serving something like 5,000 airports around the world, it can be quicker and easier to move supplies between major cities on opposite sides of the world, than it is to move supplies from a major city out to a rural part of the same region. That counter-intuitive reality leads to all kinds of challenges in supply chains. Businesses and communities that exist in rural areas are too hard to supply and serve. Zipline is working to solve this problem, and will likely transform logistics in the process.

Zipline’s vision is a future where any critical supplies can be instantly delivered on demand anywhere in the world. At best, that level of access only exists in a few major cities today, and seems unimaginable for the vast majority of the world’s population. This lack of access leads to all kinds of hidden costs and, in many cases, tragic human stories. We decided to start with health logistics, because that was the sector with the greatest human need. Zipline wants everyone, even those living in the most rural communities, to have reliable access to essential medicines and health products. If a heath facility doesn’t have a product needed to treat a patient, Zipline can deliver it in time for the facility to provide the best available standard of care.

Q: How reliant is that vision on the evolution of technology? Right now, you’re doing fixed-wing delivery by way of parachuting the product down to the site where it’s needed. As the technology evolves, how will that influence the concept you’re delivering on with Zipline?

While efforts to develop unmanned aircraft are almost as old as aviation, it’s still very early days for what we now think of as commercial drone technology. Several people and companies recently claimed that a flight demonstration or some other milestone represents a Kitty Hawk type moment for commercial drones. While I question the grandiosity of those comparisons, I do think it’s representative of how nascent this technology is.

Over the coming years, we’re going to see very rapid development. Generally speaking, the rate of technological progress is compounding, and investments made by one industry have often yielded serendipitous returns in unrelated areas. Recent investments in the consumer electronics industry are a great example of this. Since the introduction of the first iPhone 10 years ago, the growth of smartphones has led to the development of processors, sensors, and other ICs that are radically smaller, lighter, and more affordable. This in turn has enabled new uses for these technologies. Many potential applications of robotics and other autonomous technologies that were once impractical due to the cost of the hardware are now the focus of exciting technological development. Investments that today are being made by industries as varied as automotive and communications will continue to unlock similar possibilities. This trend has the potential to greatly benefit aviation, and especially commercial drones. Zipline is working to anticipate and leverage these developments as we build the best critical inventory logistics solution in the world.

Zipline’s engineering team has achieved a lot, and we already have one of the most reliable, highest performing drone systems in the world. However, Zipline aspires to do a lot more, and some key challenges remain. One of the biggest limits on performance characteristics like range and payload capacity is the density of your energy storage. Due to the cost and operating advantages offered by electric power relative to combustion engines, small drones will almost certainly be all electric, which means batteries. So battery energy density is the big constraint, and improvements in this area have come very slowly. Zipline uses a lithium-ion battery chemistry similar to that used in most electric cars. Tesla is probably the company that has invested the most effort in evaluating the technical and commercial potential of different battery chemistries. According to Tesla, lithium-ion battery chemistries are the most promising, and will likely be limited to around 5% annual improvement in energy density for the foreseeable future. Which is to say that we probably won’t have any breakthrough changes in the energy density of commercially available batteries for the next three to five years.

Assuming that is true, we’ll see moderate improvements to key performance characteristics like range and payload capacity, which will come both from incremental improvements to the energy density of batteries and design improvements to the drone itself, including refinements to aerodynamic efficiency and weight reduction. But, generally speaking, some of the applications for bigger payloads that could be very exciting, like transporting a full pallet load of inventory rather than just a package, require either a breakthrough in battery chemistry or better hybrid power systems.

Q: You’re a California-based company, and you’ve made a very deliberate move to introduce this service, Zipline, in Africa in Rwanda. Tell us about what the genesis of that was and how you see the concept you’ve now introduced in Africa, introduced perhaps in other regions of the world and perhaps even back in the U.S. or Europe?

We felt strongly that we wanted Zipline to realize our vision of on-demand critical inventory logistics first for healthcare, because that was the sector with the greatest human need. And a similar logic guided our decision to launch in a developing country. We asked, “Where is the need greatest?” Every country in the world has challenges with transportation infrastructure. Logistics for critical supplies that need to be transported across relatively long distances in areas with low network density is challenging even for the wealthiest governments and companies. Yet these problems are most acute in rural parts of developing countries. So we decided to start by looking there.

Rwanda is a relatively small, developing country with very hilly terrain. Like most tropical countries, Rwanda has two types of seasons: wet and dry. During wet season there are very heavy rains, which can lead to flooding, wash out infrastructure, and make ground transportation slow and difficult. This is generally true for rural parts of developing countries where most roads are unpaved, and wet season can transform roads into impassable mud pits. Zipline has the perfect solution to these problems. Instead of struggling through hundreds of kilometers of muddy roads, you can fly over all these challenges of infrastructure and terrain to quickly deliver critical supplies.

What allowed Zipline to launch quickly in Rwanda was the combination of high need with the right mindset. Rwanda’s challenges with infrastructure and terrain meant that the health sector needed more efficient and reliable delivery of essential medicines and health products. Meanwhile, the Rwandan Government is technologically progressive and willing to make strategic investments in innovation. Lastly, the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority was willing to take a pragmatic, performance-based approach to introducing commercial drones into their airspace, and was willing to work with Zipline to mitigate any attendant risks so that we could deliver a lifesaving service.

Q: As you say, there are other regions of the world, even in Canada’s Far North, where communities have access problems and are in need of medical services. In this case, I suppose not all those ideal situations, as you just mentioned them, existed. Would you say that the regulatory framework in North America is perhaps burdensome, and more difficult to navigate?

If you look at the regulatory regimes in the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe, “burdensome” would seem to be an understatement. But to be fair, civil aviation regulation is burdensome around the world, and this is at least partially out of necessity. That’s as true in Africa as it is in North America.

Two key things distinguish Rwanda from the U.S. One is that as a much smaller country with a less complex airspace and lower air traffic density, some of the considerations that really complicate the introduction of autonomous, beyond visual line-of-sight commercial drone operations in the U.S. just don’t exist in Rwanda. Secondly, since the country is still developing, and has the infrastructure and access challenges that I mentioned, the relative benefit of Zipline’s service is greater. With some notable exceptions, infrastructure in much of the U.S. is at least adequate as is access to healthcare. That is less true in Rwanda. In short, the risk to the airspace is less while the potential both for human health and economic benefits is greater. Even absent all the other bureaucratic differences, which I won’t get into, the risk-benefit calculation makes for a quicker and easier path to launch in Rwanda than it would in a place like the U.S.

Q: Just to get back to how you got started, you’re a Harvard graduate, and then went on to Oliver Wyman for a couple of years as a consultant. And now, of course, running a business. How has that transition been for you, and what have been some of the biggest challenges and biggest successes you’ve experienced?

One of the biggest challenges for any founder is figuring out who are going to be your co-founders, if you have them, and if not, who will be your early team. For Zipline, I am very grateful to have two incredible co-founders. Keller Rinaudo, who is our CEO, was my roommate at Harvard. Keenan Wyrobek, who leads our product and engineering teams, is a brilliant, world-class roboticist and is someone who Keller and I are extremely fortunate to have met as we were starting our journey with Zipline.

Another challenge is convincing investors to take a risk on your team. When we were first raising money for Zipline, a lot of investors thought that we were crazy. However, Zipline has been fortunate to receive support from a world-class set of investors. Sequoia Capital led our Series A, and about a year ago we closed a Series B that was led by Visionnaire Ventures and Andreesen Horowitz.

As for me, certainly the transition from aviation consulting to a startup had its challenges. Many skills that I learned in consulting helped me. As a consultant, you have to be able to move very quickly, because when you show up at a client, they want you to create value right away. So you have to learn the landscape, identify opportunities, and get to work very quickly. That’s all the more true of a startup, and it’s something for which my experience with Oliver Wyman prepared me.

In other ways though, a startup is a completely different beast. One thing that I strongly believe is that there’s no substitute for firsthand knowledge of your customer. It’s essential to make big early investments in understanding what your customers’ needs and problems are. When we were in Zipline’s hypothesis-validation stage, Keller and I traveled around different developing regions, experiencing firsthand the problems that our potential customers encountered, and then working to fully understand the root causes of these problems. This was important both to ensure that Zipline built a solution that actually addressed our customers’ needs, but also to understand the parts of the problem that we couldn’t solve, and be confident that Zipline could succeed in spite of these gaps.

We spent about four months on customer research. I traveled throughout southern and eastern Africa. In each country that I visited, I would go first to the lowest level of the health system. That typically meant a small dispensary or health post in a very remote, rural community. There, I would talk to the health workers to understand how reliable was their access to essential medicines and health products, and when they didn’t have everything they needed, why that had happened. I would then trace those stories back up through the supply chain, going to the district and then regional levels, talking to medical officers and health logisticians, all the way back to the central level. At the central level, I would also talk to supporting organizations like U.N. agencies and bilateral donors, trying to gather data from all of the different stakeholders in the health system.

We learned a lot through this process, which proved invaluable to the development of Zipline’s health logistics service. We also developed an extensive network. When it came time for us to begin marketing Zipline’s services, we were able to reach back out to the people who we met and say, “We heard the problems that you told us about. Now we have something that we think can help. Let’s talk about how to get this launched in your country.”

Q: What is the next step in your journey and what are your future plans?

Ultimately, service range, payload capacity, and value for money are what our customers care about. Zipline is obsessed with making improvements on all of these metrics. On the business side, we need to continue growing the service, both by expanding the scope of products that we deliver, and by launching additional countries. It’s likely Zipline will launch our second country in late Q4 of this year, or early Q1 of next year. Increasing the scale of our logistics network will be a big part of what drives down the marginal cost of Zipline’s services. On the technical side, Zipline will be introducing a new generation of our drone, which will have substantial performance improvements. We’re really excited about what the next 6 to 12 months will bring.

Q: What advice would you have for future entrepreneurs, and startups, as you’ve experienced it now?

Don’t waste your time. To state the obvious, any startup is a big risk. The statistics on new business ventures that fail is no secret. But it’s important to bear in mind that not only is a startup a risk for you as a founder, it’s also a risk for your early employees; it’s a risk for your investors; it’s a risk for your suppliers; it’s a risk for your customers. Because of that, it’s important that you have a vision that justifies those risks. Ensure that your product or service offers a big enough improvement over the status quo that it’s all worth it.

Coming full circle to Peter Thiel’s quote, there are so many really important problems that exist in the world and that need smart people to work on them. For me at least, it seemed important to work on something that had the potential to fix “a dent in the universe” rather than just “140 characters.”