Jumping drones that take off, land using legs: Meet the SA engineer behind them

JOHANNESBURG — Inspired by birds of the order ‘Passeriformes’ (passerines), Matthew Whalley and his Johannesburg-based team have gone about developing innovative drone technology that can take off and land with the use of legs. Matthew’s company, appropriately dubbed ‘Passerine Aircraft Corporation‘ has even gone as far as attracting funding from Y Combinator, which is a well-known American seed accelerator. Whalley’s company has big ambitions to roll out their drones across the African continent as the rush for this technology gathers pace. Take a listen to Matthew’s story. – Gareth van Zyl

It’s a pleasure to welcome Matthew Whalley on the line from Johannesburg. Matthew, you’re the CEO of a company called Passerine Aircraft Corporation. Now, the use of the word ‘passerine’ is interesting because you’re developing drones that have legs, and which can use them to take off and land. Can you please tell us more?

Yes, so passerine is a family of birds, and we are developing drones that take off and land like birds. So, they have legs instead of a catapult or undercarriage. They don’t need a runway to take off, and they don’t have rotors. Instead, they launch themselves into the air like a bird by jumping.

What would your drones be used for and who would use them?

There are a couple of different use cases. There is the surveillance-style mission, which would be for things like mines, doing geo surveys for railway monitoring, for power or pipeline monitoring. Then there’s the more exciting mission, which is package delivery, which would be the medical style delivery that’s being done largely in Africa – similar to what Zipline is doing, like delivering aid in Rwanda. So, that would be the more exciting mission that we are busy doing.

Matthew Whalley

And you’re also developing a long-range commercial drone, which is capable of operating without any ground infrastructure?

Correct. So, not requiring ground infrastructure is quite important, particularly when it comes to operating in the developing world where you don’t have the airports, roadways etc. This is really designed for Africa and for the developing world to be able to perform the same missions we’re seeing in Europe, without needing to have that supporting infrastructure.

How far can these drones fly?

We’re looking at being able to fly about 100 km on electric power, so it is purely battery powered. It doesn’t require fuel or a hybrid system. It’s just a battery and we’ll get around 100 km of range in an hour of flight time.

In terms of the wingspan of these drones: How big are they?

So, there’s a 2-metre wingspan drone, and they’re fairly small wing compared to manned aircraft. Then we are also planning to design something that will have a 5-metre wingspan, which then starts to be comparable with a small manned aircraft.

An illustration of one of the leaping drones.

How far down the line are you with the development of your drones? Are they ready for the market yet?

We are about a year into the development. We have just completed our first full-sized prototype, and we’re busy doing our testing and development on that. We’re probably going to be ready to bring drones into the market in around 6 months.

You’ve also got some interesting partners in the likes of the Y Combinator, which is a well-known American seed accelerator?

Yes, Y Combinator is one of the major things that allowed this company to start, and basically, it’s a start-up accelerator based in Mountain View just South of San Francisco in California. They help your company to go from an idea to being a successful start-up, and I got into that programme last year. I went through their batch in their winter (so our summer of this year) and I presented at the end of it at a demo day, which was in March this year.

You were obviously selected – they must have liked what you proposed to them?

Yes, you apply to the program and you essentially do an online Skype-styled interview, and then if they like you, you go through and do an in-person interview. I was then accepted into the batch, which was amazing. It’s one of the most difficult programmes to get into so, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to get into that programme and take part in it.

In light of the support that you’ve got from them, what is your plan with your business over the next 5-years? Where do you see it ultimately going? How many drones do you see rolling out?

In 5-years’ time we expect to have a fairly large manufacturing company in place, where over 100 drones will be produced, over a range of different sizes – from the small ones that we’re building now – up to a larger drone that I mentioned that will be able to carry 50-100 kg of payload. We’re looking at tens of millions of dollars turnover in revenue. Then also, within that, we aim to have a subsidiary of the company where we operate the drones for locations where there aren’t currently operators, which is largely on the African continent.

Matthew, you’re based in Johannesburg, at the moment. Is your team based in Johannesburg as well?

Yes, that’s correct. At the moment, our team is fully located in Johannesburg.

What inspired you to get into this space? What is your background as well in terms of drones?

So, I’m an aeronautical engineer with a masters degree in engineering. I did a lot of work on drones as an extracurricular activity, while I was at university. Then the first job I went into was, essentially, designing drones. And the recurring theme on all the stuff that I was working on, is that there was no good drone for the developing world. Certainly, there was no good drone to do package delivery. So, that was really the inspiration to start developing this new type of drone.  

What are some of the challenges that you face, because I know that SA, a few years ago, implemented some Drone regulations. You need a license to fly a drone, for instance. Is regulation a challenge?

There are many challenges when starting a business, of course, and also, many challenges in the technology space. Unmanned aircraft drones are a very highly regulated market. I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. We are, after all, flying things over people and potentially over infrastructure as well. So, it does need to be regulated.  In SA, it is quite a challenge just because of the way in which it has been implemented. But all around the world you face the difficulty of regulations when operating in the drone space. We also, in SA struggle from not having a particularly startup friendly culture or environment, which is part of the reason why I went across to the US to start this company, and to raise seed funding.

What about the rest of Africa? I presume there’s a lot less regulation there? Is it easier to enter those markets? I know that Kenya, for example, is quite a key start-up hub.

Africa, outside of SA, is actually doing a lot of stuff with drones… so, I mentioned Zipline earlier, they are operating in Rwanda and they’re doing an excellent job. They’ve actually, recently moved to another country as well. Kenya is doing a lot of stuff with drones as well. Malawi has the UNICEF drone corridor. So, if we look North of us, there is a huge amount of development being done in the drone industry, and we could mention other technology industries as well where there is less regulation, at least initially. But the big difference is that their regulators know that there needs to be regulation but they’re working with companies that want to operate to make something that works and is feasible for both the operators and for the safety of the airspace.

Zipline operates the world’s only drone delivery system at national scale to send urgent medicines, such as blood and vaccines, to those in need – no matter where they live. Photo courtesy of their website.

We don’t see many drones up in the sky today, apart from the odd hobby drone that people fly around from time-to-time. In 2-3 years’ time do you think that we’ll start seeing a lot more of them flying around and delivering stuff and becoming more of a utility?

I think delivery is probably more than 2–3 years’ away, certainly in SA I think that’s the case. I think where we’ll see a lot more drones are outside of cities. So, I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of them inside cities but on construction sites we’re probably going to start seeing a lot more of them. Out on farms, out over mines, over infrastructure, anywhere where there’s not a lot of existing ground infrastructure, where they provide a large benefit, I think we’ll start a lot more of them. But that means most people living in cities will probably not see that big an increase in drones in the sky.

Matthew, it’s been a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for telling me about your company and the future of drones.

My pleasure.