What happens when Manna, Wing and Avtrain walk into a bar

Drone experts from both sides of the Atlantic met at Ireland House in Austin, Texas this month to give us an aerial view of where the nascent industry is headed.

Manna and Wing are the two leading drone delivery providers in Ireland today, with a spate of trials and expansions across chalked out territories in different parts of the country, from rural Galway to southside Dublin. And while there are some marked differences between the two companies, there seems to be a stark similarity in their foundation stories.

For Google-backed Wing, the story goes back to 2015 when Sergey Brin, one of the search giant’s co-founders, “couldn’t believe” that he couldn’t get sushi delivered to his ranch up in Pescadero, a small town in California, according to Andrew Patton, former strategy and growth lead at Wing.

Patton was sharing this inception story at a panel in Ireland House at SXSW in Austin, Texas earlier this month, organised by Enterprise Ireland. Today, Patton is the head of US and board director at Manna Drone Delivery.

For Bobby Healy, founder of Manna, the story behind his start-up goes back to 2018 when he was “sitting at home dying for a bag of chips” but, as is the case for most Irish suburbs, it was not that easy. This is when he realised that the future of deliveries – especially for small items – may lie with drones.

“Initially, I thought it was a horrible idea,” said Patton, speaking of Google’s decision to look into drones for deliveries. As a former flight test engineer at Boeing, drones were meant to soar higher, literally. “I was much more into large altitude drones that would fly really high and provide 5G to communities that didn’t have terrestrial 5G.

“But the more I looked into this delivery drone thing, the more and more it became not about aviation for me but about business and specifically retail.”

Drones can be used to deliver anything from food, groceries and medical supplies to even just a cup of coffee. This can help eliminate the need for terrestrial vehicles swerving about in residential suburbs, easing traffic and reducing impact on the environment. Besides, while the novelty lasts, it’s just really cool to get things delivered by a drone.

Manna, the first mover in this space in Ireland and now one of the world’s most well-known start-ups of its kind, has been delivering food in rural and suburban Ireland for years now, most recently kicking off its Dublin trial in Blanchardstown.

Wing, meanwhile, has been creating a rapid medical delivery network in South Dublin since August of last year. It has had a presence in Ireland since 2022, when it confirmed Dublin’s Lusk as the location for a small-scale drone delivery demonstration.

‘The drones are coming’

Patton was joined on the panel by Kendal Prosack, local policy and community affairs lead at Wing, and Julie Garland, founder and CEO of Avtrain, a former SiliconRepublic.com Start-up of the Week.

Hosted in a swanky Downtown Austin bar called Marlow, the home base for all things Irish at SXSW this year, the panel was moderated by Russell Vickers, co-founder of Future Mobility Campus Ireland (FMCI) based in Shannon, Co Clare.

Prosack shared some of Wing’s successes closer to home. In the neighbouring Texan city of Dallas, about 300km north of Austin, Wing has seen business soar.

“We’re seeing customers now order multiple times a day. We launched with Walmart in September, and we’ve just passed 5,000 deliveries just with two stores, so it’s been really huge for us so far,” she told an inquisitive audience alternatively looking at the stage and the life-size model of a Wing drone kept at the side of the bar.

“Our payload is small – just under three pounds – so we are not solving your grocery order delivering those large household items today. It’s more those convenient things: some our biggest items are limes, avocados, frozen mangoes, Theraflu, Tylenol. So you have a mix of those grocery items as well as the household, like healthcare items,” she said.

“It sounds like people making drinks, getting drunk and then ordering stuff on Wing,” joked Vickers, as laughter tore through the audience.

The panelists standing outside Marlow Bar in Downtown Austin, where Ireland House was based during SXSW. Image: Michael O’Donnell/Enterprise Ireland

Garland, an aircraft maintenance engineer and training captain by background, operates at a slightly different level when it comes to drones (excuse the pun). After working as a technical aircraft management lecturer and even barrister-at-law for a while, Garland founded her own drone training and certification start-up around five years ago.

“Back in 2014, when I first started talking about drones, people looked at me like I was some sort of an eejit shouting ‘the drones are coming, the drones are coming!’ and they really didn’t believe it,” she said. “I’ve been a real early adopter in this and an early believer in ‘drones are coming’.”

Around the time the drone industry first started taking flight in Ireland, Garland said the Irish Aviation Authority were worried that drones – especially consumer drones – would fly off the shelf without regulation. This is when they approached her, thanks to her background in training pilots and legal expertise, to help them rewrite a statutory instrument in 2015 that gave structure to Ireland’s drone regulation.

Competition on the horizon?

Today, Ireland is a pioneer in the regulation of drones. Within the EU, Ireland has stood out as a country that is responsive to the needs of industry from a regulatory perspective – no doubt helped by the growing presence of players such as Manna and Wing.

“What Europe does really well, is regulation. It’s kind of a heavy regulation market, from drones to AI to consumer tech, it’s very active at regulation. And while sometimes that can be a bad thing, in the case of aviation we can’t have an industry or business without strong regulations, because it’s physical,” Healy told me in an interview last year.

“We’re all flying through each other’s airspace, and we’re mixing with general aviation. You can’t even start until you have the clear, concise and practical regulation. And that’s exactly what Europe has done. There’s no compromising on safety – and it’s at least three years ahead of the US at this stage. If we were from Lithuania, Poland or wherever, as a company, Ireland would still be where we’d be operating because it’s got everything we need.”

Manna and Wing are not the only big players in the space, of course. US e-commerce behemoth Amazon, understandably, has a strong interest in drone deliveries and its Prime Air service recently entered European airspace with launches across the UK and Italy.

But a little bit of competition for budding industries is good news for everyone involved, including customers, who benefit from higher levels of innovation and choice. Manna itself has been building up a presence in Amazon and Google’s home turf with drone delivery services launched in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the US.

“We don’t really see Manna as competition because, for one, there’s a lot of airspace,” said Prosack, speaking of the Irish start-up’s expansion in the US – where regulation is often scant and hard to navigate. “We are also still so young that we just need everyone to rally behind us so we can get the word out there and then also start to work on regulation.”

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