Making a technological leap in air transportation
Ribbit’s pilotless planes are set to make the future of air more inclusive and sustainable
Jeremy C. H. Wang
PhD candidate, Faculty of Engineering
> Co-founder and COO, Ribbit
Taking to the skies and delivering goods by plane is going pilotless. Ribbit’s new autonomous flight technology creates a more robust supply chain by deploying small autonomous airplanes that fly cargo shipments to provide just-in-time delivery, and they’re prioritizing remote communities.
We asked Ribbit’s co-founder and COO, Jeremy C. H. Wang, how his technology advances air transportation and what is next for this exciting Velocity startup.
What is Ribbit?
Ribbit is a venture-backed startup creating a pilotless cargo airline. We’re building and integrating autonomous technology that enables airplanes to fly themselves — taxi, takeoff, landings, emergencies and more. Our plan is to retrofit and operate fleets of autonomous planes to enable next-day delivery for e-commerce merchants. In the 14 months following our pre-seed round, our team modified a plane to taxi, takeoff, fly a circuit, land and perform collision avoidance maneuvers all autonomously.
To realize this dream of pilotless flight, we’re connecting some of the best aerospace, robotics and software talent to bring air transportation into the 21st Century.
How is Ribbit addressing the challenges faced by remote Canadian communities?
The more remote you go, the worse the supply chains get. Remote communities lack year-round road connections, so essential commodities like perishable foods must be flown in. The problem is that current airlines don’t fly that often, and as soon as one flight is delayed or cancelled — say, due to weather or maintenance issues — this creates massive backlogs and unreliable service. Ribbit is creating a more robust supply chain by deploying small autonomous airplanes that fly multiple times per week to each community and provide just-in-time delivery.
We’ve already signed on six major wholesalers spanning all the key destinations in Ontario, Manitoba, Nunavut and Labrador. However, remote markets are just the start. Our long-term plan is to address air cargo and improve fulfillment networks at large.
What inspired you to start your company in 2019?
My co-founder Carl Pigeon and I are extremely passionate about transportation as a fundamental enabler of living standards and economic prosperity. Prior to Ribbit, we worked at one of Canada’s top drone operators on small long-range drones for industrial and defence applications. There we gained valuable technical and regulatory experience but realized it would take fully autonomous full-sized airplanes to reimagine air transportation at large.
So, considering the self-driving car boom, a worsening pilot shortage, growing congestion at airports and, of course, a longstanding co-founder friendship and working relationship, we felt the time was right to start Ribbit. It just so happened that the COVID-19 pandemic occurred soon after, further emphasizing the need for resilient supply chains.
Why did you choose to come to Waterloo to pursue your PhD?
Two reasons — firstly, my supervisor Professor Jean-Pierre Hickey, and secondly, Waterloo’s reputation among founders and investors as a major hub for startup activity. Everyone needs a creative outlet, and for me, the last four years working with Dr. Hickey have kept my spirits high and certain skills sharp amidst the startup grind. He has always held my work to a high standard yet proven to be an unwavering advocate for the capacity of anyone, at any stage in their career or with any title, to challenge the status quo.
I also chose Waterloo due to its reputation among the startup community for the network of successful founders who have "been through it all” and returned to mentor, and in many cases, fund the next generation of ambitious entrepreneurs.
How has Velocity supported Ribbit’s growth and you as a founder?
The staff, mentors and founders at Velocity are incredibly generous with their time and expertise in navigating the constant change and ambiguity when starting a company. Startups contend with many unexpected problems and situations, like changing opportunities and threats, and there is very little universal advice because every startup is on its own unique path. It’s reassuring to be able to email someone who has specific expertise, or post a message in the Velocity slack, and within hours, have a critical conversation that helps you build a framework for thinking through a tough open-ended problem. Likewise, it’s rewarding to leverage your own strengths to help others and build relationships that will last a lifetime.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of our customer traction and insights about where autonomous flight will, and won’t, have the greatest impact. As is common for deep tech, many startups and investors are focused on the long-term technical challenges of autonomous flight whilst touting traditional air cargo markets. We’re instead pursuing a path to market that focuses on niche customers with the capacity for rapid execution and growth based on what is already possible. We expect revenue-generating autonomous operations within the next couple years as we continue to mature the technology based on what customers genuinely need.
That said, I’m nevertheless proud of our team’s technical chops — they deserve tremendous credit for developing an autonomous airplane prototype in a little over a year and as cost efficiently as we did.
In the last few months, we signed on additional customers bringing our total commitments to $42 million a year in future revenue, and we recently kicked off a National Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Alliance partnership with Waterloo Management Sciences and the Western’s Ivey School of Business to optimize transportation networks for e-commerce.
What is your vision for the future of pilotless aircraft?
The current iteration of air transportation was built on a fundamental assumption: that humans must fly planes. This basic assumption has shaped everything from airplane design, to how we route and schedule flights, to how we design and operate airports, and everything in between.
With pilotless aircraft, Ribbit envisions a future with smaller planes serving more destinations, where airplanes fly direct point-to-point routes without layovers, where airplanes can operate at smaller airports closer to the source of demand, and where packages are transported just-in-time to minimize unnecessary sorting, waiting or re-routing. Coupled with electrification and other trends in aviation and supply chain management, future transportation systems will be faster, more reliable, more integrated, more inclusive and more sustainable.