When you’re launching any new technology that can visibly impact people’s neighbourhoods and, even to some extent, how they see the sky out their window, these communities must be handled with care.

Throw in a negative perception garnered through years of misuse by annoying hobbyists and those using the technology for sometimes nefarious purposes, you’ve got a real education exercise on your hands or backlash, either public or regulatory, is bound to be swift.

We’re of course talking about drones.

We spoke with Bobby Healy, founder and CEO of Manna Drone Delivery, the first of its kind not just to be talking about drone delivery as a decades-long launch date, but one that is – as we write this – delivering hot cups of coffee to residents of Oranmore, a suburb of County Galway, in Ireland. Healy speaks about the challenges he faced when bringing the bogey-man of the airways to Galway, and how he charmed the local community into loyal customers and even vendors.

Bobby Healy:  My story started local. It sounds like it is a made up one but it is true. One gorgeous day I am sitting in my back garden. I have a lovely big back garden here in the suburbs of Dublin and I'm sitting out with a couple of glasses of wine, I get the munchies and need a bag of chips. I have a very good relationship with my local chipper but they can’t do delivery—they try but it's an hour until I get my bag of chips

I am also learning about drones—about the general tech of it. And I start marrying the problem of me not being able to get my chips delivered and the fact that a drone (an off the shelf drone) could go get my bag of chips. So, I built a little bit of code around a standard drone and spoke to my local chipper about delivery. 

I went down to an Italian family (who probably thought I was an alien) and we discussed delivery, what it means to them and when their business peaks throughout the day. There was a guy sitting outside the chipper sitting in a diesel-powered car and the engine is running. He's keeping the engine running to keep himself warm and his job is to sit there and drive out bags of chips to people. He might get five to ten orders throughout the night but his engine is running the whole time, he’s not on a great wage and customers get a terrible experience. It’s not very pretty. I told them that I had built a drone and the drone will fly 40/50 kilometres per hour and can easily carry a bag of chips. So, I built a ‘bag of chips’ app just for Bobby Healy, hit the button, bag of chips arrived. That was it. One customer, one product.

Show people the vision, let them buy into the story

Like my founder story, when it comes to changing perceptions of people in the community, and the public at large, it’s about showing that this is ultimately a local business giving rise to opportunities for other businesses big and small. It’s about taking the community with us, even as we scale to bigger towns across Ireland and Europe.

Our message to the community is: we have everything you need delivered instantly. Then fast forward to when our infrastructure is ubiquitous and people are used to us, then we will be able to support the local lady who wants to bake cakes. So, she will get an order for a cake or buns and we will fly to her house, collect it and fly it out to the customer. Bookshops, jewellery, food. In the end it won’t matter—we are an infrastructure provider carrying everything from everywhere to everyone, short range, low value, lightweight. That is the huge change that means that suburban dwellers will be able to have an equal, if not better, option than if you're living in the middle of London.

Building trust through familiarity

One key aspect of building trust, however, was our partners. Having brands like Tesco, Ben & Jerry’s, Coca Cola and Samsung help to allay any consumer safety fears. Pairing these with local coffee shops like Thomas & Co, meant that the community wasn’t just being sold to, its economy was being boosted.

Small businesses are encouraged to talk to us about how we can help them get their products in the hands of more customers. Unlike the large multinational delivery marketplaces, we’re helping local businesses thrive.

Oranmore is a small town of 10,000 people and our next location (Balbriggan) has 35,000 people. We have to be close to them and we have to support the town, it is almost a marriage. Now we have engaged them, starting with local businesses but they are very happy to have us and are powerful beta testers for us.

Scaling to other areas

The next town we are launching is about two hours’ drive from Oranmore. When operating at full volume, full demand with six to eight small aircraft, flying at 50/60 metres we will do about 500 deliveries a day. People in Oranmore didn’t find the drones obtrusive at all, almost everyone found them exciting, in large part because they understand that a green, safe and fast delivery system is a great thing for their community. Allaying fear is all about messaging, communication and brand, it’s about pride in the community and pride in the product.

Introducing new technology needs to be managed by good branding and good messaging and a sensitivity to the change you’ll be bringing about. I think we are driving a change in attitude, just by making it real and showing how it works—but we need to get it right everywhere.