Although aerial drone deliveries have been tested for medical supplies and e-commerce, other applications are possible. Reliable Robotics Corp. and Giumarra Cos. this week announced the joint launch of an automated flight test program to help solve supply chain and delivery challenges within the fresh produce industry.
In its successful inaugural flight on Aug. 7, the program delivered tree-ripened peaches from a farm to grocery stores within 24 hours of harvest — a feat yet to be available at scale for U.S. growers. The flight test served as a crucial step in reducing time and touch points between farms and consumers, said the companies.
The Giumarra Companies was founded in 1922 and is an international network of fresh produce growers, distributors, and marketers. Products packed under the company’s Nature’s Partner label must meet strict standards for food safety, quality control, and flavor.
“To call this program groundbreaking is an understatement. We believe autonomous aircraft will transform the future of the fresh-produce industry,” stated Tim Riley, president of the Giumarra Cos. “This test proved the technology is viable and will evolve how we bring products to market by enabling us to deliver fresher, riper fruit anywhere in the country, including remote food deserts, at speeds never before seen.”
Reliable Robotics was launched by SpaceX and Tesla veterans and raised $33.5 million in August 2020. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has been developing autonomous flight technology that it claims will enable safer, more convenient, and more affordable transportation of goods and eventually people.
Reliable Robotics sees autonomous cargo on the horizon
Historically, domestic air transport for produce has not been an economically viable transportation option, said the partners. Autonomous aircraft makes this possible and could provides greater access to delivery sites, including small municipal airports in underserved areas.
Reliable Robotics achieved fully autonomous flight on the Cessna 172 Skyhawk without an onboard pilot in 2019. With this most recent milestone, the company completed an automated flight between two airports, 200 miles apart, this time with an engineer and pilot on board for safety assurance.
The company has also demonstrated automated landing of the larger Cessna 208 Caravan and is in the process of certifying its automation platform for use on the Caravan, a popular cargo plane ideal for air shipments of produce.
During the flight test, a piloted Cessna Caravan transported three pallets of tree-ripened peach cargo. Upon arrival, the peaches were delivered directly to local stores, bypassing the distribution center completely. A Cessna Skyhawk followed to demonstrate that the automated aircraft could complete the same route. The pilot’s role for this flight was to push a button to initiate taxi, takeoff, approach, and landing.
“Giumarra is a forward-thinking company, and we’re proud to partner with them to show how automated cargo flights can greatly improve fresh food distribution,” said Robert Rose, co-founder and CEO of Reliable Robotics. “We believe autonomous aviation is going to change the way we experience food for the better.”
Partners say produce industry ripe for change
Currently, travel time for popular stone fruits such as peaches, nectarines, and plums can take up to seven days from farm to consumers in the lower 48 states, noted Reliable Robotics and Giumarrra. Fruit must typically be picked earlier, while still firm, to endure the long journey.
The supply chain includes multiple links before product arrives at its destination: picking, packhouse, cooling, and transportation via truck to a distribution center. There, product is inspected and slotted until delivery to grocery stores.
Automated aircraft delivery can significantly streamline these processes, said the companies. The flight test program proved that automation can improve speed and quality for the entire fresh-produce supply chain, said Reliable Robotics and Giumarrra. The companies cited the following benefits:
- Growers and suppliers can quickly and more efficiently deliver farm fresh produce to stores in less time, resulting in less spoilage.
- Retailers can offer consumers a premium experience and access to farm stand quality produce at their local grocery store.
- Consumers can more conveniently shop for sweeter tree-ripened fruit and fresh produce available at stores within 24-48 hours of being picked.
- In turn, growers can produce varieties optimized for flavor and texture versus transportation method.
These advantages could be amplified for consumers and retailers in the Midwest and East Coast as well as smaller or hard-to-reach markets where certain produce largely comes from California growers and distributors, the companies said.
“The potential for autonomous aircraft to deliver farm fresh food is incredible,” said Raviraj Jain, an investor at Lightspeed Venture Partners. “Many other types of perishable goods and high-value, time-sensitive products would benefit from this new kind of service. I expect compelling use cases will emerge that we can’t even imagine today.”