Securing the Last Inch in Autonomous Package Delivery
As a kid growing up in Naperville, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago, Ryan Walsh spent many hours devouring books on famous people in history. He loved reading about the “magnificent lives” of people such as Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Greek war leader Leonidas I. And he realized that he had something in common with every one of them.
“All of these people had two legs, two arms and a brain, just like I do,” he told himself. “What makes them capable of such great achievements and not me?”
Buoyed by this realization, Walsh decided that “impossible is only in your mind.” From childhood on, he has devoted himself to solving problems that seem insurmountable.
Today, as the CEO and co-founder of Chicago-based start-up Valqari, Walsh and his team are focused on solving the recurring “last inch” problem facing the drone delivery industry: how to deliver packages in a way that is secure and convenient for consumers, while being safe from porch pirates, adverse weather or curious animals.
Their solution, under development since 2013, is called the “Smart Drone Delivery Mailbox.” It uses Valqari-patented technology called the Autonomous Logistics Information System (ALIS) to provide consumers with a secure, fully-automated, two-way delivery system. ALIS communicates with an incoming drone, authenticates the delivery, then unlocks the mailbox. The drone deposits the package in the container then notifies the consumer of the delivery.
“Current drone delivery systems drop or winch down their packages in an open space near a consumer’s home,” explained Walsh. "I should not have to leave work and go stand in my front yard to receive the package. That’s not convenient.”
Valqari’s approach, Walsh continued, is to provide a secure digital chain of custody. “Our smart mailbox not only allows the drone to secure a package, but also allows the consumer to know that the package was delivered and that it’s being stored properly until the consumer can pick it up at a more convenient time,” he said.
Valqari’s smart mailbox also includes an elevator that raises outgoing packages to the top of the box for pick-up by a drone, he added.
Watching the Future Evolve
On September 11, 2001, Walsh was just 16 and a high school junior. Enraged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and determined to serve his country, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army.
“They told me I was too young, that I had to come back,” he recalls. Two years later, however, just after high school graduation, he successfully enlisted.
Walsh served in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, part of the service’s Special Operations Forces. During three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he witnessed but was not directly involved in the nascent days of drones supporting combat missions.
“I was aware of the assets the Army had and how they worked, " he said. "I got to watch them develop from being somewhat novel to becoming intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms all the way to becoming (missile-carrying) gunships by the time I got out."
Watching drones mature, Walsh recalled, “it was not a big mental leap to see how this technology could one day scale up commercially.”
Building a Resumé
Walsh’s time as an Army Ranger not only tested his grit and perseverance — qualities that underpin his current determination to see the smart drone delivery mailbox succeed — but also helped pay for his education.
After four years of active duty, Walsh began training with the Illinois National Guard. Soon thereafter, he enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago in 2008. Thanks to credits earned in the Army and a laser focus on education — “I overloaded my classes, went to summer school, took as much outside learning as I could get credit for” — Walsh completed his bachelor’s degree in economics in just two years.
His next stop was North Central College in nearby Naperville where he enrolled in an MBA program. Through this intense, two-year effort, Walsh gained the technical competency to spot and analyze technology trends in the marketplace, a skill he now calls on daily. He completed his MBA degree in 2012.
Learning How to Succeed
Over the next few years, Walsh focused on teaching himself “the art and science of business.” He started or provided backing for several restaurants, a clothing company, and an experiential event company. The goal was to learn the intricacies of different business models and how to solve business problems in different contexts.
“My approach has always been to find entrepreneurial partners full of grit and passion and bet on them,” he said.
One such partner was Valqari co-founder Alex Falesch, who helped Walsh manage some of those early companies. Walsh credits Falesch with playing a leading role in designing their smart mailbox and the related ALIS drone communication system.
Between 2013 and 2017, the two entrepreneurs, sensing a maturing of the commercial drone delivery market, began developing proof-of-concept hardware for their smart mailbox. Along the way, they also secured 13 patents related to its design and operation.
These early development days also presented an opportunity for Walsh to begin mixing his MBA training with lessons he’d learned as an Army Ranger: namely to anticipate and attack the (enemy) not where it is now, but where it’s going to be in the future.
“For us it’s never been about where the technology is today but always about being one step ahead,” he explained. “We’re focused on where trend lines are going to be in a few years rather than trying to make an incremental improvement in what’s true today.”
By 2017, many of the duo’s patents had been granted, and the drone market was starting to mature. So they decided it was time to stand up Valqari — the name is a derivation from the Norse mythological character, Valkyries — to commercialize their technology.
Delivering Safety and Convenience
Today, while most would-be drone delivery companies – Amazon, Google, UPS et al — are focused on how best to operate fleets of drones safely and in compliance with evolving FAA traffic management regulations, Walsh is focused on the consumer experience.
“Drones and humans are inherently incompatible,” he said. “Spinning blades and fast-moving flying objects create a number of safety risks. No matter how innovative the drone is, these delivery services will never be accepted if they don’t provide a safe and convenient user experience.”
The infrastructure Valqari is creating, he emphasized, completely automates interactions between the mailbox and the drone and leaves the human out of it.
“A consumer’s only engagement with a drone should be opening or closing their smart mailbox to send or retrieve packages,” said Walsh.
Watching the Market Evolve
Walsh believes the most promising early markets for Valqari’s smart drone delivery mailbox will be commercial in nature — medical deliveries on hospital campuses, for example, deliveries to rural locations, or perhaps inter-company deliveries served by a large, centrally-located receptacles. As the technology gains acceptance among urban populations, his team hopes to introduce window-mounted or balcony-attached models for individual use.
In the meantime, the drone delivery market received an unexpected and potentially strong boost from the newest coronavirus.
“COVID-19 has helped regulatory agencies realize that drones would be great for no-touch delivery,” explained Walsh. “They’re starting to see the merits of having groceries, meals, and pharmaceuticals delivered by drone to people who are trying to stay safe by sheltering at home.”
“Our goal is to replace every mailbox in the world.”
-- Ryan Walsh, CEO, Valqari
Keeping Up with Opportunity
Since Valqari opened its doors in 2017, Walsh claims, no two days have been the same for him. His days begin early at his home in Aurora, Ill., just outside Chicago. As an entrepreneur running a start-up, he’s as likely to be on the phone with potential suppliers in Asia as commuting by train or car to his main office in downtown Chicago. Or heading out to the Valqari testing facility — a converted warehouse — in the Chicago suburbs.
Between calls and meetings, Walsh does what he’s always done: he reads voraciously. Between e-mail, industry newsletters, and daily newspapers he’s always on the lookout for new trends and latest developments in the drone and communications worlds.
“I don’t want to ever stop learning,” he said.
Doing What's Right
One of the most important things he’s learned, in fact, is that his opportunities to succeed — and fail — are almost unlimited.
“I always like to do what’s right and not be right,” said Walsh. “If I’m doing things that are pushing the boundaries, I should be failing on a regular basis. I should be wrong a lot more often than I’m right.”
One thing he’s pretty sure he’s right about is that drone delivery services in general and Valqari’s Smart Drone Delivery Mailbox in particularly will help improve people’s lives, particularly in the age of COVID-19 and other disruptive forces.
“If we can help people get their meals, pharmaceuticals and other essential items when they need them in a manner that’s convenient and cost effective, it will give them more time to be with family and to do the things they love doing. That would be a pretty great outcome.”
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