Brazil’s Speedbird to use Israeli drone traffic system for food delivery network

Israel’s High Lander, backed by Emirati group, has developed a platform to safely manage UAV-based fleets within airspaces

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Speedbird Aero’s DLV2 delivery drone flying in the city of Aracaju in Brazil. (Courtesy)
Speedbird Aero’s DLV2 delivery drone flying in the city of Aracaju in Brazil. (Courtesy)

Israeli startup High Lander, the developer of an autonomous air traffic control system, has inked a partnership to help one of Brazil’s largest UAV operators to safely steer a drone-based network for the delivery of fast-food and groceries across the country.

High Lander has signed a memorandum of understanding with Speedbird Aero for the Franca-based drone operator to deploy the Israeli startup’s unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform. Speedbird manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for transport and delivery of goods for commercial, industrial and medical purposes. The drone delivery provider is working with Brazil’s largest food delivery app iFood, making thousands of food deliveries throughout the country.

“Speedbird is adapting High Lander’s technology as their drones are flying very heavily in in many urban areas througout Brazil, so they need to effectively monitor the airspace to prevent conflicts and collisions,” High Lander founder and CEO Alon Abelson told The Times of Israel.

“Fast food delivery needs to be cheap by making it faster than by traditional transportation means and in this sense drone delivery is helping companies like iFood deliver packages with greater speed, efficiency, and safety to different and complex locations that they weren’t able to do before.”

For example, in Brazil there are many locations where you need to drive around a river to deliver packages which can take you around 40 minutes, or you can get stuck in rush hour, while drones can cross a river, and shorten delivery to a few minutes, and the last mile delivery is managed by traditional delivery, Abelson added

As more drones take to the skies, Abelson, a veteran air traffic control commander in the Israeli military for over 20 years, and Ido Yahalomi, co-founded High Lander in 2018 to develop software tailored for managing drone fleets flying above the ground whether for intelligence gathering or to deliver anything from medical supplies and groceries to food deliveries. That’s as the fast-growing traffic of UAVs has increased risks of low-altitude air collisions and the need for autonomous aerial command and traffic control systems.

To safely deploy and monitor hundreds of drones operating in the same airspace as manned aircraft, the Israeli startup in 2020 launched the UTM platform. The idea of the UTM system works similar to a traditional human-manned air traffic control station, just for drones run by computers and algorithms rather than people.

High Lander and Speedbird teams at an autonomous aerial command and traffic control center in Israel. (Courtesy)

As part of the partnership, Speedbird will deploy High Lander’s universal UTM system to ensure that “flight operations are carried out safely and efficiently without endangering other aircraft or people on the ground, while demonstrating to regulators that full oversight of uncrewed aerial activity is possible,” the two companies said in a statement.

“By leveraging High Lander’s UTM technology, we can ensure the safe and efficient operation of our drones, enabling us to deliver packages faster and more reliably than ever before, even in the most complex environments,” said Speedbird chief product officer Samuel Salomao.

The partnership comes after the Israeli startup drew a $14 million investment from EDGE Group in January this year, turning the Abu Dhabi-based group into a major shareholder. EDGE, which has more than 20 aerospace development companies under its umbrella, said it will support further development and deployment of the universal UTM platform as the group focuses on the development of autonomous systems, including UAVs, smart weapons and cyber technologies.

To date, High Lander has raised more than $20 million, including grants from the Israel Innovation Authority. With the latest investment by the Emirati group, the startup is planning to double its staff of 20 to 40 employees over the next six months and open a new office in Tel Aviv next month, Abelson said. The office will include an air traffic command control center for UAVs to monitor and track globally, every flight that is flying like a NASA command center, he added.

High Lander and Speedbird are both part of a government-led pilot project, also known as the Israel National Drone Initiative (INDI), established in 2021 to create a national drone network and prepare the sky for drone deliveries across Israel together with regulators and private companies.

Earlier this year, the INDI project entered its second phase with bigger drone fleets, a wider selection of drone types, including air taxis, longer distances with heavier loads to build an infrastructure for a safe coexistence with manned aviation. Additionally, High Lander’s UTM platform is also deployed by the Israeli national police forces.

High Lander co-founder and CEO Alon Abelson. (Courtesy)

Israeli airspace is among the most tightly controlled and busiest relative to the country’s size. It has a lot of incoming and outgoing planes and at the same time, there’s a heavy military air presence, with planes and helicopters on the move both in training and on active duty.

As part of the INDI pilot project, more than than 16,000 drone flights have been carried out, in all weather conditions delivering sushi, ice cream, medications to hospitals and more, to residents in urban areas, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hadera and Beersheva.

Last month, a test flight was carried out by an autonomous drone carrying 3.8 kilograms (8.4 lbs) of blood from Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. It landed 13 minutes later on the grounds of Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, close to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon after the 25.2-kilometer (15.7-mile) ride.

“We field-tested our technology in Israel which is our sandbox working with the ecosystem and now we are spreading globally,” said Abelson. “Any obstacles like buildings, towers, flying close to airports or even terrain changes become the responsibility of our UTM control platform to make sure that there are no collisions.”

The partnership with Speedbird also marks a wider push for High Lander into Latin America. In the coming weeks, the Israeli startup, together with Speedbird, will hold talks with aviation players throughout the region, including Brazil’s civil and military aviation regulators, Brazilian planemaker Embraer, and nationwide ATM provider Saipher. The goal is to build a consortium and create an infrastructure to enable drones to coexist with manned air traffic, including helicopters, throughout Brazil.

“As an air traffic controller and coming from an aviation family, as my brother is a pilot we both believe that somewhere in the future there is a big change ahead of us: my brother won’t be sitting in the cockpit and I am not got going to be sitting in the control tower – all will be managed be autonomously,” said Abelson.

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