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MightyFly’s Next-Generation Drones Have Sky-High Potential

Photo courtesy of MightyFly
by

April 27, 2021

When we first met MightyFly’s founders Manal Habib and Scott Parker, we quickly knew they had that perfect combination of technical expertise and tenacity–a world-class team of experienced drone engineers capable of reshaping logistics. 

Their vision is a lofty one: to build large autonomous cargo aircrafts that can replace delivery trucks by providing more efficiency and cost savings. The way Manal explains it: “We need to take those UPS and FedEx vans off the ground and into the skies.” 

MightyFly is developing drones that can fly, say, between Los Angeles and San Francisco at speeds of up to 150 mph while carrying up to 500 pounds of cargo (or an estimated 150 packages). Currently, most action centers on last mile delivery via smaller aircraft transporting items weighing at most a couple pounds. Amazon PrimeAir, Zipline, Matternet and Google’s Wing have that capacity.

But as e-commerce accelerates and creates demand for expedited shipping, logistics players are largely struggling to deliver fast and affordable services. Ground transport is only cost-effective when vehicles are fully loaded, which can be challenging to pull off with same day deliveries. Manal wanted a solution that improved the unit economics, while bringing speed and cost savings. To do so, Manal and Scott built a larger electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) drone with hybrid engine systems.

That requires taking on significant technical challenges, but we believe Manal and Scott can deliver. Working on a shoestring budget, we watched them make meaningful progress since entering our four-month accelerator program in October, which is why we have decided to increase our investment in the company.

Over six months, they developed a prototype and tested it in Half Moon Bay, California after receiving a coveted special airworthiness certification from the FAA. They’re now prepping more tests in the U.S., including a potential pilot in Australia that will help build a strong case for FAA approval.

Regulations are still unfolding for commercial drone operators, but we’re seeing positive momentum. With COVID-19 accelerating e-commerce and exposing weaknesses in supply chains, the FAA is beginning to fast-track regulations. This points to more regulatory approvals on the horizon for commercial drones flights, including long-range routes with higher weight clearances. 

As those develop, MightyFly should find opportunities to deploy its technology at scale. One area is to offer enhanced mid-mile capabilities by integrating drones with existing ground infrastructure that handles the last mile. It can also help with B2B supply chains, such as managing inventory distribution for retailers looking to boost efficiency around in-store pickups. 

Another key opportunity that could soon arrive is operating delivery routes for rural customers, who currently suffer from high shipping costs. From a regulatory standpoint these routes offer a simpler path to approval for flights beyond line-of-sight, because drones would be travelling over sparsely populated areas.

Already, a market appears to be shaping up for larger delivery drones. David Benowitz who heads research at DroneAnalyst said that while the market and media have hyped the last mile package delivery space, he expects supply chain deliveries for large enterprises and government agencies will be a part of the market that will more quickly deploy aircraft. 

When Manal is not busy developing her autonomous aircraft, she is building a two-seater airplane in her garage on week-ends. Born in Tangiers, Morocco, she grew up gazing at the North African sky with dreams of becoming an astronaut. An engineering and math whizz, she fought her way onto a U.S. exchange program, speaking little English, and interned with NASA. She then did her ungrad at MIT, studying aeronautics and astronautics, before getting her start as a software engineer with companies such as Oracle. 

Scott is a mechanical engineer who’s spent nearly 15 years working on drones after starting out in Australia as a defense contractor. He later joined a string of Bay Area drone startups, including Volansi, where he led product strategy.

The pair met while working at Zipline, which makes drones that parachute medical supplies. They operated in complementary roles and struck up a friendship: Manal focused on writing software for autonomous flight controls while Scott handled aircraft design and manufacturing. That experience convinced the duo that there’s a need and market for drones with additional functionality and range.

The playing field is still wide open when it comes to larger cargo drones. The barriers to entry are high, but we expect to see leaders emerge in this space. Led by great founders, we believe MightyFly can take drone deliveries to new heights. 

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