El Pollo Loco Tests 'Air Loco' Drone Delivery Despite Concerns

Emma Betuel
Emma Betuel is a science and health reporter. Her work has appeared in Inverse, Future Human, and Texas Monthly, among others publications.
El Pollo Loco Tests 'Air Loco' Drone Delivery Despite Concerns

For the last five months, orders of grilled chicken have zipped through the skies of Costa Mesa.

In June, restaurant chain El Pollo Loco launched a drone delivery program in the city of about 113,000, which also serves as the site for its corporate headquarters. While other companies have piloted drone programs that deliver to pickup sites, El Pollo Loco was aiming to become one of the first to deliver food to backyards.

Their delivery drones ascend to about 200 feet, and lower chicken deliveries using an 80-foot wire to people’s homes.

From the perspective of Andy Rebhun, the vice president of digital at El Pollo Loco, the company has had “an unprecedented'' amount of customer interest in the service, measured by new signups to the company’s drone delivery landing page, airloco.com. Rebhun wouldn’t disclose the number of completed drone deliveries or how many people have signed up for the program, but said the latter was a “six-figure number.”

“Once we shared the story of our first deliveries, it got massive interest on all our social media channels and several videos had over a million organic views,” he said.

The arrangement is likely to become more common in the coming years.

El Pollo Loco is far from the only company to dive into the world of drone delivery. Last week Walmart announced the launch of a drone delivery pilot program in Farmington, Arkansas.

El Pollo Loco’s program is run in partnership with Flytrex, an Israeli drone delivery startup that in November raised $40 million in Series C funding. Other companies have started to run pilot programs featuring the company’s drone tech, too. Some Brinker International restaurants like Chili’s, It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Little Italy piloted drone programs with Flytrex in North Carolina.

Across all of those programs, Flytrex CEO and co-founder Yariv Bash said the company has completed “thousands of deliveries,” the bulk of which have come in the past few months (the company claims to be doing 10 times more deliveries now than it was doing at the beginning of 2021).

So far, Bash said “thousands” of people have registered for Flytrex’s delivery app – though most of their homes aren’t in range to receive drone deliveries, he said. But those who are in range tend to be repeat customers, which accounts for the number of deliveries.

“So far, more than 50% of people who have registered use three deliveries or more. It’s pretty viral – people really love it,” he said.

Just 2% of restaurants use drone delivery, though 10% appear to be interested in incorporating them, the report found. But there does seem to be some interest in drone delivery from consumers: 38% of consumers expressed interest in the service.

However, drone delivery isn’t always well-received. A drone delivery program run by Wing (Alphabet’s drone delivery company) in Canberra, Australia led to noise complaints in 2018. An Australian government analysis also upheld that the drones were breaking the neighborhood’s noise standards of 45 decibels, and had a “particular pitch” that is more noticeable. Wing has since debuted a quieter drone.

There are concerns in the U.S., too. In one U.S.-based survey of 801 phone interviews run by the public affairs company the Hawthorne Group, 51% of consumers supported neighborhood drone deliveries. But, 48% were still “somewhat concerned” about safety, and 71% were concerned about privacy.

That said, some U.S. communities with drone delivery programs are reporting positive results. A study conducted by scientists at Virginia Tech, for example, found that 87% of surveyed residents had positive feelings towards drone delivery programs. During the pandemic, the study found that positive feelings increased in 58% of residents.

The authors of that study suggested that opinions of drone delivery may be higher in communities that experience it (though that hasn’t necessarily been the case in Australia).

As for restaurants, Ann Golladay, an associate director at Datassential, said that once people experience new technology, attitudes also tend to change in positive ways.

“We've found in our research that consumers are generally opposed to new technology until they use it, and then satisfaction is high and it is well-loved,” Golladay, told dot.LA.

The pandemic, she adds, has only made consumers more open to new forms of technology in restaurants.

The Costa Mesa City Council, a host city for the El Pollo Loco drone project, did not return multiple requests for comment for this story. But Aaron Levitt, the principal engineer in the town of Holly Springs, North Carolina, which just introduced a similar Flytrex restaurant delivery program, did note that residents have been receptive.

“We did have a lot of reactions. The majority were very positive and very excited,” he told dot.LA.

Holly Springs has earned membership in an FAA pilot program aimed to facilitate drone programs. Flytrex is running drone deliveries through a launch station at a nearby shopping center; restaurants simply drop off orders at the launch station, and the drone takes it from there.

Building community trust in a drone project came down to two large factors: noise and privacy.

“The typical response you would get from the people that were not really so sure or who were negative about it was: they’re going to be spying on me,” said Levitt. “And as soon as you say there's no cameras on the drones, everyone just relaxes.” (Flytrex drones do not have any cameras, a spokesperson confirmed.)

As for noise, Levitt requested that Flytrex run specific tests to ensure that the drones wouldn’t become excessively loud. The results of those tests showed the drone is about 66 decibels loud during active delivery, about as loud as a normal conversation or an active office. It’s 55 decibels loud while flying overhead en route to delivery – as loud as a household refrigerator.

Levitt’s hope for drone deliveries is that they can eventually make deliveries to workers at a nearby business park, who are looking for nearby food options. He also sees it as a perk that may excite other large companies like Amgen, who is building a facility in Holly Springs, to come to town. He also hoped drones would become useful for small businesses close to the launch site – though those partnerships have yet to materialize.

“Maybe a mom-and-pop sort of restaurant could use Flytrex as a delivery option. Eventually, I think that’s going to be a real thing, where any of those restaurants in that area could utilize them as delivery and you know, maybe help grow a business,” he said.

Ultimately, drone delivery still has a long way to go to live up to the hype surrounding it. But so far, enthusiasm appears high. Rebhun, for one, said drones are “absolutely” part of El Pollo Loco’s strategy going forward, though they are still evaluating the program.

“We have no reason not to welcome the technology as a more permanent part of business,” he said.

🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
Image Source: Tinder

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Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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  • Penguin Random House agreed to acquire comic book publisher Boom! Studios from backers like Walt Disney Co. - learn more

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.

Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

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Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

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Plug In South LA

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Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

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MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

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The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

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Disney Accelerator

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Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

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Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.

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