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Ex-US naval officer prepares drone deliveries for takeoff in Stockholm

The impact makers of Stockholm. By Invest Stockholm

In recent years, cities around the world have seen a sharp increase in the number of delivery services, fuelled by a growing preference for convenience and compounded by the global pandemic. Without a more sustainable alternative, the rise in delivery vehicles in the world’s 100 largest cities is forecast to increase carbon dioxide emissions from delivery traffic by 32 percent.

This isn’t acceptable to former-US naval officer Alexander Perrien. And so, at the height of the pandemic, he began thinking of ways to combat this projected hike in emissions while increasing the accessibility of goods and services. The solution, he realised, lay with unmanned aerial vehicles — more commonly known as drones. At the end of 2020, along with his co-founder aerospace engineer Teo Rizvanovic (and later joined by backend developer Pablo Belin), Alexander launched autonomous drone delivery service Aerit.

“Drones, being electronically powered, are significantly more sustainable than traditional delivery methods,” he explains. “Our vision is to create a fully autonomous system that combines drones with small and cost-effective autonomous landing, loading, and battery-charging stations that can be rapidly deployed as we expand coverage.”

Last mile delivery services - that is, delivery services which handle the final leg of the delivery process - typically require a high population density to be viable. Demand is greatest in busy cities like Stockholm, where Aerit is based, but is also growing in rural areas as e-commerce continues to surge. However, the cost of training drivers to deliver further afield, as well as covering the cost of vehicle maintenance and fuel, quickly becomes very expensive. This overhead can be significantly reduced through automation, says Alexander.

“Right now, our drones can deliver roughly six kilometres out and then six kilometres back. We’re planning to add longer distance drones to the fleet in the future and implement a hopscotch method, which means shorter range drones will drop packages at landing pads placed around the city and countryside, then the other drone would take off without having to wait to charge.”

All the user has to do is choose ‘drone delivery’ in the partnering delivery company’s app. The solution makes sense for both businesses and consumers, says Alexander, as drones are both faster - being able to fly relatively straight airborne routes - and more cost effective than traditional delivery methods with a fleet requiring just a single operator.

“Right now, the drones fly autonomously but we monitor to make sure everything goes smoothly. The systems we are developing will, in the future, allow us to control multiple drones using one operator.”

Stockholm: an entrepreneurial launchpad

It’s not by coincidence that Alexander established Aerit in Stockholm. When his contract with the US Navy came to an end, he decided to pursue his lifelong dream of starting a company and knew that Stockholm would make the ideal base. He’d previously visited the city for work and had been impressed by its beauty and the friendliness of the locals. He also knew of its reputation as a ‘unicorn factory’ and the birthplace of companies like Skype, Spotify, and Klarna.

“It was always a dream of mine to start my own company. Stockholm has great entrepreneurial circles and I knew if I was going to make this startup thing work, Stockholm was the place for me.”

These entrepreneurial circles have been integral in getting Aerit off the ground - in every sense of the term. Whilst the idea was still taking shape, Alexander contacted RISE - Sweden’s research institute and innovation partner - and was connected with autonomous systems research scientist Rasmus Lundqvist. A former CEO of a drone company, Rasmus provided Alexander with invaluable counsel and suggested he reach out to KTH Innovation (the pre-incubator program at KTH Royal Institute of Technology). He took Rasmus’s advice and was quickly introduced to a drone team - and received some funding - to build the first drone and conduct the first autonomous flight.

“The talent pool in Stockholm is wonderful, and the level of risk tolerance is also pretty high for an investment. People are always willing to at least talk to you about the ideas you have and provide feedback,” Alexander says.

The Aerit team recently received its first operational authorisation from the Swedish Transport Agency and is currently preparing for its first delivery. The next step is fundraising with the goal of launching commercially in a selected community in the spring of 2022. At scale, Alexander says, the revenue generated by delivery fees can easily surpass the cost of system setup and maintenance due to the significantly reduced cost of autonomous operation. He has the next couple of years of Aerit’s growth carefully mapped out, and eagerly anticipates January 2023 when cities can legally designate unmanned airspace to drone deliveries.

“When that happens it will be a huge opportunity for us to grow.”