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How Drones Could Conquer Food Deserts

Terp Tech Innovators Named to Washington Business Journal’s 25 Under 25 List

By Shannon Clark M.Jour. ’22

Illustration of drone delivering food

Camilo Melnyk '21 (below) and Spencer Yaculak '23 (bottom photo) are gaining notice for their company, Blimp Logistics, which could someday provide airborne drone deliveries of food in areas poorly-served by food stores.

Illustration by Shutterstock

Broccoli, beef and baby formula are too often out of reach for people living many miles from a grocery store—or lacking a ride to one—forcing them to choose between paying hefty delivery fees or just going without.

Building new grocery stores and developing fleshed-out supply chains in these areas is slow and expensive, creating a business opportunity where two Terps hope to swoop in, literally, and help solve the problem.

Camilo Melnyk ‘21 headshot

Camilo Melnyk ‘21 and Spencer Yaculak ‘23, co-founders of Blimp Logistics, are building fixed wing, vertical takeoff and landing drones with a goal of bringing inexpensive “last-mile” delivery access to rural and suburban areas, including “food deserts,” where groceries stores and fresh food are not available within a walkable distance. The pair was named last month to The Washington Business Journal’s 2021 list of “25 Under 25” innovators.

Their partnership draws back to their freshman year of high school at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County, where they worked together on the school’s robotics team before reuniting at UMD, where Melnyk majored in aerospace engineering and Yaculak studies mechanical engineering.

“I was thinking about drone delivery… and after having a conversation with my dad about containerized housing, the idea sort of merged with ‘What if we launched drones that are housed in hubs built inside shipping containers, and move them around?’” said Melnyk.

The drones will be housed in 20 foot shipping containers that will serve as home base for the drones. The containers can be taken off the back of a semi truck and dropped off to provide delivery coverage to nearby residents.

With a range of 60 miles, the drones can carry up to 30 pounds and have an endurance of about an hour, depending on the number of stops.

“These drones are very cheap to operate, they are fully electric,” said Melnyk. “And our approach with a distributed network of hubs that our drones operate out of means that we can deploy quickly and less expensively.”

Spencer Yaculak ‘23 headshot

In May, the duo won the top prize of $30,000 in David and Robyn Quattrone Venture Track at the Pitch Dingman competition, held yearly by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. They also participated in the National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps Program to better understand what customers are looking for in a delivery service.

The U.S. has yet to establish a regulatory framework to allow drone delivery (sorry, Amazon), but the pair is thinking several steps beyond that, with plans to have a fleshed-out system ready to implement when regulations catch up. Currently, Melnyk and Yaculak are working to meet Federal Aviation Association guidelines to one day have their drones qualified as aircraft.

Beyond a lack of convenient access to food creating a need, sparsely populated areas have another advantage for the startup, particularly during testing.

“Part of the reason we are targeting a rural and suburban area is because it’s not a densely populated city,” said Yaculak. “These drones are big and heavy and they are going to be in the sky, so we see this as a very safe place to start, and it lets us develop the technology in a much safer environment.”

Since graduating in May, Melnyk has been working full-time as CEO for Blimp Logistics while Yaculak is balancing her studies with part-time work as chief technology officer. They’re still in the prototype-building phase now with half-scale drones, but plan to start producing full-size ones in the near future. From there, they hope to make food deserts blossom with drone-assisted delivery that they hope begins around the time Yaculak graduates.

“We hope to be in a trial market in Maryland somewhere in the next 18 months,” said Melnyk.

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