As the COVID-19 crisis continues to take a global toll, startup Swoop Aero is taking remote work to the next level; from its Melbourne office, it is operating a whole fleet of autonomous drones delivering medical supplies in Malawi.
Now, it’s also working with regulators closer to home as well, to distribute medications to rural Australian communities.
Founded in 2017, Swoop Aero is an “aeromedical logistics” provider, co-founder Eric Peck tells SmartCompany, with a focus on last-mile delivery of medical supplies in developing countries.
Peck started his career in the Australian Air Force, training as a pilot and learning to fly the Hercules — a 70-tonne aircraft that flies 70 metres off the ground at night.
He completed a tour of Afghanistan and another of Iraq, and at the same time completed an MBA.
After leaving the military and working as a management consultant, he met his co-founder Josh Tepper, a mechatronics engineer.
The pair started working on the odd project together, and were one day approached and asked whether it would be possible to use drones to transport chemotherapy medication to patients in rural New South Wales.
“The answer is yes, it’s technically possible,” Peck says.
“But what does a system look like that can do that safely, reliably and sustainably, every day of the week?”
Others in the drone delivery space were using hobby drones and turning them into delivery drones, he says. But that didn’t provide the security they would need for transporting medication.
Peck and Tepper set out to combine their expertise, reimagining the Hercules on a tiny scale to create “what would become an autonomous aviation system” that could ship medicines reliably, cheaply and safely.
As it turned out, they had stumbled upon a huge and complex problem in the healthcare space: the high costs of logistics, particularly in last-mile delivery.
Seeing the scope of the problem, the pair founded the company out of their own pockets, then secured a small amount of angel investment, before being accepted into the Startmate accelerator program.
Since then, Swoop Aero has secured the first commercial contract in the world to deliver vaccines using a drone and closed its first venture capital funding round.
Over the past year and a half or so, the business has seen almost 50% revenue growth, quarter-on-quarter, Peck says.
“We’re still predicting that to continue, which is really exciting.”
Just last month, Swoop Aero also took home the top prize at Startup Victoria’s ‘Rapid Risers’ pitch night, winning a prize package of software and support credits, legal advice and consultations, plus participation in a Landing Pads program.
The business is now operational in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and recently deployed its systems in two locations in Malawi.
But, as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis deepened, the team was forced to return to Australia.
“The biggest challenge for us out of the coronavirus pandemic has been the operational logistics of being able to continue our deployments, particularly in emerging countries such as Malawi or Mozambique in Africa,” Peck explains.
But, operations have been able to continue, in Malawi at least, with the team largely operating their fleet remotely, from Australia.
It makes Swoop Aero the first company in the world to run a drone logistics network from outside the country of operation, “which is a big milestone”, the founder says.
Pilots in Australia are transferring vaccines to remote villages in Malawi.
“Despite having to withdraw the team … we’re able to leave our local Malawian team on the ground, and run the network from back here in Australia.”
It’s something the business was hoping to be able to do eventually, but circumstances forced it to make that leap much faster than anticipated.
“It’s a real proof-point for us that we’re able to go into a new country and within two months fully establish a local workforce capable of operating on the ground for us,” Peck says.
“It’s a testament to the trust we’ve been able to establish with the aviation regulator and the health system in Malawi.”
The Australian team was able to work with the health organisations and the government, on board a local team, and “leave it running safely, reliably and sustainably on the ground”, he adds.
“It’s a 100% proof-point of the system we’ve spent the last two years developing.”
At the same time, it means there’s an infrastructure in place for deploying medications, which could allow the government to better respond to COVID-19 in Malawi.
“It proves the aviation system we’ve got in place is deployable, and we can roll that out in other countries.”
Closer to home
Peck and the team are also starting work on getting their drone delivery systems up and running in Australia.
There’s potential to roll out the system to rural and regional communities that aren’t easily accessible otherwise, he explains.
“That system is proven to work,” Peck says.
“That model of being able to really quickly deploy a safe service is going to be fundamental to our business going forward.”
To date, Swoop Aero’s focus has been on developing countries. But the COVID-19 outbreak has forced the team to shift its focus back to Australia.
“Up until today, our operations in Australia have primarily focused on system validation and R&D, but we’re quickly refocusing,” Peck says.
“We have this capability to really quickly respond to government and private healthcare system needs.”
At the moment, the startup stands ready with the staff and the assets it needs to deploy two networks to support the Australian health system, he adds.
“The last body of work that we’ll be doing before this becomes a reality in Australia is working very closely with CASA, the Australian regulator, to see if we can deploy this quickly but also safely in Australian airspace.”
While some drone operators see aviation regulators as a barrier, or a challenge to overcome, Peck says he views them as “a partner” in deploying a safe and effective service.
“Ultimately, if we can’t prove it’s safe to an aviation regulator, we can’t guarantee it’s safe for our customers, and we can’t guarantee that it’s going to be safe for the people standing underneath the flight paths,” he explains.
Still, “we’re ready,” he says.
“We’re hoping to begin deploying those within the next couple of weeks.”