By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A drone operator yesterday said its multi-million dollar investment will produce both “a paradigm shift in Bahamian logistics” and a much-needed boost for the Grand Bahama technology hub.
Arthur Frisch, co-founder of Hogfish Ventures, told Tribune Business that the company’s plans could translate into “hundreds of jobs” through a combination of its on-demand drone delivery services and proposed Freeport-based research and development (R&D) facility.
Revealing that the latter has already received the go-ahead from the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority, Mr Frisch said he and Hogfish’s Bahamian co-founder, Robert Sweeting, were now working to finalise the R&D facility’s location in anticipation of welcoming their “first tech tourist” before year-end 2019.
Describing it as “a money maker” both for themselves and Freeport’s economy, he explained that the R&D facility was intended to act as a global magnet for companies and entrepreneurs in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology field.
Mr Frisch said Hogfish’s plans had already attracted “interest from every continent” and, if their vision became reality, would entice a range of technology companies to come to The Bahamas and generate badly-needed momentum for the Government’s fledgling technology hub ambitions.
Part of this vision has already launched through the first on-demand drone delivery of goods from Marsh Harbour’s Leonard M. Thompson International Airport to Green Turtle Cay, which was completed by Hogfish Ventures’ subsidiary, Fli Drone, on June 18.
Emphasising that he and his partners were “taking time to scale” up the business, Mr Frisch said they expected Fli Drone to be transporting 1,000 pounds of cargo per day via UAVs within the next six to 12 months.
Pointing to the expected reduced costs and delivery time from their service, he added that it would enable the rapid transportation of vital cargos such as medicine, parts and perishables to isolated cays and other remote parts of The Bahamas.
Mr Frisch identified the Exuma Cays as “a huge market” for Fli Drone, and said it could even handle cargo drops to yachts in Bahamian waters provided they are equipped with GPS tracking devices. The company is aiming to create a “hub and spoke” model through two central operating hubs in New Providence and Abaco that will deliver to more than 70 locations.
“I look at things half-full if people use technology the right way,” Mr Frisch told Tribune Business. “I think this is a paradigm shift in logistics in The Bahamas. Historically logistics is very expensive and difficult to do, and this has retarded access to medicine in the Family Islands, services and products in the Family Islands, and restricted access to emergency services.
“Drones can plug all these gaps. Drones will connect the islands like never before. Up until now there has been no on-demand delivery option in The Bahamas. You have to use the ferry system or charter a plane, which is not feasible for most people. We’re offering on-demand delivery for critical items - parts, medicines, whatever anybody needs.”
Fli Drone’s inaugural service originated at Abaco Aviation Services, the private Fixed Base Operator (FBO), last month and took 28 minutes to complete its delivery to Green Turtle Cay. Cutting out the need for both car and ferry, the company said no infrastructure was required to enable the drone to both land and take-off during its 50-mile round-trip across land and water.
“Right now we’re doing 20 pounds, but at the end of the year we’ll be at 50 pounds and in 18 months’ time we will be doing hundreds of pounds,” Mr Frisch said of the drones’ cargo-carrying capacity.
“We have multiple vehicles so can fly multiple trips at a time, and do multiple trips to the same island, so we estimate we can do 1,000 pounds of cargo in a day. We’re going to be doing 1,000 pounds per day in the next six to 12 months. We want to make sure it works and do it right, taking the time to scale approach, rather than rush into it. We’re thrilled and excited at what’s to come.”
Mr Frisch added that Fli Drone was working with UAVs measuring 15 feet by nine feet, which he described as “the size of a small Cessna”. The company has teamed with San Francisco-based Volans-I to manufacture its drones, with Mr Frisch describing it as “the delivery truck” to Fli Drone’s “Fedex”.
He added that Mr Sweeting, a friend from their time at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, had spotted the potential for drone technology as an on-demand delivery service in The Bahamas when he two years ago witnessed its use in Fiji, the Pacific Island nation.
Mr Frisch, who started and sold his own software company when living in San Francisco, was able to provide both the link to Volans-I and the expertise as Fli Drone’s chief technology officer. He described Mr Sweeting, who has a background in real estate and logistics, as “the inspiration” behind Fli Drone and Hogfish’s other ventures. Another business partner is Leslie Pindling.
While The Bahamas has yet to legislate and implement a regulatory regime governing the use of drones, Mr Frisch said this had not held back Fli Drone’s activities. “The Government is being progressive on this front,” he told Tribune Business.
“They’re moving in the direction of having more robust UAV regulations, but there is no clarity around exactly what. Around the world there are technology companies trying to do this but the regulatory environment is not really there. Really we’re the first in the world to do commercial deliveries from controlled air space because the Government is being very progressive with it.”
Mr Frisch added that Fli Drone was working with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensed pilots, inspectors and regulators in the roll-out of its plans. The Green Turtle Cay flight was undertaken with support from the Marsh Harbour Air Traffic Control, and witnessed by several government officials.
These included Captain Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA); Andrea Linden, nurse-in-charge at the Ministry of Health in Abaco, and members of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF).
While the on-demand delivery service will extend as far north as Grand Bahama, and to Exuma in the south, Mr Frisch said the estimated 30-50 jobs expected to be created by Fli Drone would expand to hundreds with the addition of Hogfish’s planned R&D facility.
“I think hundreds of jobs is a realistic number,” he told Tribune Business. “From a marketing perspective, interest perspective and demand perspective, we’ve had interest from every continent in the world in this facility.
“We expect to have our first tech tourist, because companies will be coming to Freeport to test their drone technology, by the end of the year. That’s a great money maker for us, and a great economic stimulus for Freeport, as you will have technology company personnel staying in the hotels and going to the restaurants.
“It’s a good job creator for Freeport as we will have people working in the facility. We are now a repository for bringing technology companies all around the world to Freeport. The Prime Minister supports that, and he’s been a big supporter of us for quite a time,” Mr Frisch added.
“Having all these new technology companies coming into The Bahamas to test puts The Bahamas first in line to use the technology. There’s a great alignment of interest there. We’re very bullish on the future of technology in The Bahamas. We’re glad to be one of the groups trying to make a difference.”