This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.
The day he announced publicly he was leaving his job as CEO of Continental Aerospace in September 2019, Rhett Ross was already talking about the next big idea.
He had lunch in Mobile with Philip Burton, owner of Burton Property Group, and told him he was leaving.
“Philip said, ‘That’s amazing! I was going to ask you about this thing I was looking at,’” Ross recalls. That “thing” was Deuce Drone — the brainchild of John Fanning, founding chairman and CEO of Napster, and Brigadier Gen. Blaine Holt.
Ross, too, had been looking at drones — the unmanned aircraft that many people are using for photography these days — and realized that it was a matter of when, not if, they were going to start being used routinely for bigger and better things. So, Ross joined Burton and Fanning and began hammering out the details.
By April, 2020, with MIT students KJ Hardrict and Timmy
Hussain on as co-founders, Deuce Drone was ready to fly.
Zero to 60 Overnight
“All of this just kind of jelled,” says Ross, who serves as CEO and one of five advisers for Deuce Drone. “COVID hit, MIT shut down, so Timmy and KJ had no dorm room, no place to live. So, they moved to Mobile for a while and did our first development work and demonstration activity, while Philip found retail partners and I provided general business and regulatory acumen.
“It started like most of these things do, with people spitballing around the table and talking,” Ross adds. “Life and business just happened, and we went from zero to 60 overnight.”
All of this will lead to a delivery service that will use drones to help retail partners deliver food, medical supplies, groceries and more to your doorstep. Right now, Deuce Drone is working with Buffalo Wild Wings and Rouses Market to perfect the system.
The Deuce Drone model has three components: customers will order goods online or via app; adapted off-the-shelf technology will allow those retailers to automate getting orders to a roof or somewhere else a drone can pick them up; and, finally, software will guide drones to pick up and deliver those packages.
Last August, Deuce Drone and partners Buffalo Wild Wings and Rouses showed off the technology in a demonstration at The Grounds in Mobile.
And how will it work? After the order is placed, the order will be packed, a QR code will be affixed and it will be dispatched for drone pickup.
Early on, customers will need a vinyl “map” with a QR code that they’ll place at an appropriate location outdoors. The drone will find that map and place the delivery there.
“It’s what some of us grew up watching and thought in our youth would happen,” Ross says. “I wear an Apple Watch on my wrist, and I still remember Dick Tracy cartoons. This is the Jetsons. It’s unbelievable what we’re doing, and it’s so cool.”
Chief among Ross’ priorities is safety. Technology can be cool until something goes wrong.
“Drones are safe enough to do this now, but it’s like anything else,” he says. “We kind of take safety for granted in aviation, but it’s hard-earned and so easy to lose. Just look what happened to Boeing… We’re taking a very firm approach to think about how these really need to be used in practice. How do we insure reliability? How do we insure they’re safe? These will be 10, 20, 50, 100-pound devices flying anywhere from 50 to 400 feet above your head. If something falls off of them, it will kill a person, just because the rules of gravity apply.”
But safety goes beyond that, Ross says.
“The things I worry about is when the drone is landing or taking off — that kid or pet running out to touch it because they’re just excited,” says Ross. “How do we load these without people at the retail sites, and how do we unload these or get the package safely on the ground at the receiving location? That’s the important stuff we started looking at from Day Zero.”
Fanning, founder and chairman of Netcapital, has been interested in drones since investing in Uber.
“Same-day delivery that doesn’t break the bank has been a dream for some time,” he says, “but exorbitant costs incurred in the last mile have historically made it challenging for smaller retailers to compete with the likes of Amazon.”
That has become even more important in 2020, Fanning says.
“The pandemic accelerated demand for touchless, direct-to-consumer delivery capabilities, as well as a more social desire to support smaller and local businesses facing hardship,” he says.
Amazon has started delivering packages by drone in some markets, but Deuce Drone is different, Ross says. “Amazon is going to use this for Amazon,” he says. “We see this as an enabling technology that allows a local retailer or national retailer with a local presence to turn their local presence into a fulfillment center and compete more effectively against the Amazons and Walmarts of the world.”
Some FAA regulations in place when Deuce Drone started — such as forbidding drones from flying above crowds of people — have been relaxed, helping push the development of the concept.
“We spent a little more time in our first year trying to understand the base needs of the technology and what we have to do to make this work,” Ross says. “Now, we’re planning to start running some basic revenue demonstrations and trials on a closed course, both for food and probably for medical activities here in the Mobile region. It will be real people ordering real things… I think you’ll see that by the end of 2021.”
In the meantime, the company is looking for investors through its website, deucedrone.com, or through Netcapital at netcapital.com. People can see last year’s closed-course demonstration, as well as other video updates, on the Deuce Drone YouTube channel.
“Between friends and family, we’ve raised over $750,000 in our development efforts,” Ross says. The service will launch in Mobile, then expand to other markets.
“This is not a New York City kind of service,” Ross says. “This is the Mobiles, the Pensacolas, the Birminghams, the Biloxis. Our goal would be to get through what we have to get through using Mobile, which is highly supportive of things like this, willing to support us with the FAA. Then we’re going to start looking elsewhere for markets with 100,000-plus population. But you’re not going to see this in Manhattan among all the skyscrapers.”