A Q&A with Manna CEO Bobby Healy

Meet Manna, the Irish drone delivery startup that airdrops broccoli to customers in a small town
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· 7 min read

Manna is an Irish startup that makes its own drones and operates an autonomous, aerial delivery service in Oranmore, Galway. The company has plans to expand soon, CEO Bobby Healy tells the Brew, and recently announced a partnership with Samsung to airdrop consumer electronics to Irish customers.

We chatted with Healy about his company, the reliability standards for at-scale drone deployment, weather, and much more. Before we get into it, a few notes:

  • Five nines reliability = 99.999% reliable. The .0001% = something with the drone goes wrong
  • Six nines = 99.9999% reliable
  • 10-9 = one in a billion chance

NB: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Where does Manna sit within the wider drone landscape?

We’re full-stack. We design, develop, and manufacture the aircraft ourselves. We build the cloud and mission services. Me and my team have built many companies before. This isn’t our first rodeo, but it’s definitely the most complex business.

With drones, you have a flight envelope you need to satisfy and the basic parameters: power, thrust, control. There’s some electrical, mechanical, and aeronautic engineering. In a nutshell, it ain’t rocket science, but where it gets much more difficult is to say: “I can fly this mission 10 million times and not have a catastrophic failure.”

The gate to get through is not building the tech, getting to 10-9 of safety. When you’re measured up against general aviation, you need to have comparably safe numbers.

Where do you stand on that?

We’ve had our aircraft in high-volume flight testing for nearly a year and a half. We’ve done 35,000 flights. On the one, it’s a lot, on the other, it’s tiny. We’re doing 3,000 flights a week now. Those are autonomous test flights that we run over the middle of rural Ireland. Volume, volume, volume. [Editor’s note: 90% are test flights; 10% are commercial.]

We’re active in an Irish town with 10,000 people and ~3,000 homes, which is pretty dense. We charge for delivery service. Our vendor partners charge for the product. We’ve delivered everything from coffee to a head of broccoli. There’s no stunt about it, and this is exactly how scaling will look in the future.

How much can you carry?

We can carry just over seven pounds of volume. In terms of volume, good luck trying to translate this, but it’s about 20,000 cubic centimeters. The way we look at it, this is a meal for a family of four.

Well, I appreciate you saying the payload in pounds. Us darned Americans. Can we go back to reliability and the number of 9s you need to achieve?

That’s the hard part and holy grail, with the FAA and European Union Aviation Safety (EUAS) over here. There’s a lot of movement on how they’ll measure and certify aircraft.

It boils down to performance-based standards. You tell regulators about your aircraft, its design, the MTBF [mean time before failure], and your mitigation measures. You take them through a functional hazards matrix of everything that can go wrong and what happens if things do go wrong. You demonstrate that to them. It’s far less prescriptive than you would see for an assessment of a helicopter or whatever.

We’ve been at 10-8 for some time, through a combination of knowing the failure rate of various different components. You get a further zero or zero and a half by having a parachute.

There’s various cascading variables: population density, size of your vehicle, air of the day, total failure rate of the aircraft, and failure rate of parachute. You combine all the variables and get your exponent.

Today we’re at 10-8. And that’s with an aircraft that has five 9s of reliability.

I’ve never really gotten into the nitty-gritty of that with anyone. How does your aircraft differ from a standard quadcopter?

You know what happens when you lose a motor in a quadcopter. It ain’t pretty. We get certain architectural benefits from being an octocopter.

Our aircraft is designed to be very heavy. It has three totally separate systems: three flight computers, each with its own GPS, compass, etc. We have an independent main battery and an auxiliary battery, so if the first one fails we have 120 seconds of flight. The only thing that’s shared is the propulsion system. And that’s your weakest point. We’re fine if we lose a motor or even two. But if we lose two on the same arm, you have a big problem. That’s when your parachute deploys.

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What are the operational design domains for your drones?

About a three to four mile radius from our operating center. Most importantly, flying in 15 meters per second wind. That means we have enough energy, worst-case scenario, to get home every time. The great thing about Ireland is that we have the worst weather you could imagine. You guys in the states seem to send all the wind over here. There isn’t a day where we don’t get every season.

Sorry about that. So, you bill yourself as drone delivery as a service. Can you talk about pricing? At scale, you’re cheaper than ground-based alternatives? Is that the thinking?

We’re charging between $1 and $6 per delivery. We can be profitable at that price point, which may change. If anything, it will go cheaper. The town we’re in, they’re all over Facebook and Instagram talking about it. There’s nothing we can hide. 98.5% of the town is positive on this and 30% use us frequently. The penetration and repeat rates are way better than road-based usage. [Ed. note: The 98.5% figure comes from a Manna survey of 997 adults in Oranmore.]

98% seems shockingly high. How the hell is it so high?

We have someone who pretty much wrote the regulation for drones in Europe on our team. As he wrote the regs, he spent time understanding consumer sentiment, sensitivities, and pressure points. So, we knew what was important when designing the aircraft.

You can’t compromise on safety, obviously. The next biggest concern is noise. If you ask people what they don’t like about drones, it’s 70% noise, 20% privacy, and 10% a few other things. We have carbon fiber, oval-shaped arms and 30-inch props, so you can’t hear us at altitude. Small props will generate particular sound profiles that the human brain subjectively considers not nice. We don’t produce that, luckily.

The second aspect: There’s this local bookshop run by a crazy guy who loves books and just wants to be in the business. That guy now has a better product online than Amazon has, right? He can literally get to all of his customers in a 50-square kilometer range in five minutes.

Let’s talk about the Samsung news. Their products are a lighter payload and more expensive order than many of your perishable items. A consumer may be more inclined to pay the $5 fee on a new phone vs. a head of broccoli.

Drone delivery is just about getting things around. It could be a phone, a pint of ice cream, or a pint of blood. We don’t care, we just think it’s the best way to get things from one place to the other. We want to power literally everything being moved around in suburban and rural communities.

It comes down to instant gratification. The future of retail is unknown. The phone companies provide a superb brick-and-mortar experience for consumer electronics. It’s a nice experience, but you have to go out.

When you look at the big brands—what we’ve done with Samsung and Ben and Jerry’s—those are two huge worldwide brands. They think deeply about their relationship with distribution and customer, and how that ties to their brand. Most of Samsung’s brand is actually constructed and distributed through media, right? Through traditional forms of TV, print, tech journals, etc.

It’s like Tesla, right? Teslas are sold online. Why wouldn’t someone who is loyal to the Samsung brand and knows what they’re buying want to order it online and get it in 10 minutes, vs. ordering and getting it in a few days. You could say this about any big brand: what they’re doing is exploring how direct-to-customer looks in the future.

Are you coming to the US?

Our next launch will be another town in Ireland. We will be in the US, very soon, but I can’t tell you exactly when.

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