Story | Research
14 September 2018

The Qatari startup planning to airlift mail to your doorstep.

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Incubated at Qatar Science & Technology Park, Airlift is aiming to realize the dream of automated deliveries.

In today’s era of rapidly advancing technology, you may have aspired to become an entrepreneur with a successful tech-based venture. However, in the pursuit to compete and triumph, it’s easy to forget about why you entered the tech race in the first place or what problem you wanted to solve. For Ahmed Mohamedali, a 28-year-old Qatar-based entrepreneur, it was sticking to a purpose behind establishing his startup that led him to create a successful venture that soon turned international.

“When I think back at the university days, I [remember] thinking how cool it would be to be Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. It’s like an entrepreneurial sense that I need to build technology to solve problems. Fantasies, like oh what should we be doing?” says Mohamedali, a long-term resident of Qatar from Sudan, whose company Airlift is currently being incubated at Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP). “But that shouldn’t be the motive. The motive must be to solve a real problem people are facing, making a difference and augmenting their lives. A purpose of your venture. Something you can go back to for more belief and energy.”

With the purpose to solve logistical issues during the delivery of mail and cargo, Mohamedali founded Airlift to create technology that can efficiently deliver packages without any human assistance. The idea materialized when Mohamedali and his co-founders, Musab Al-Mozien, Munera Al Dosari, and Nebras Ozzo, noticed that too many factors delayed the delivery of parcels to buyer’s doorsteps — like no delivery after hours or on weekends, the availability of the buyer at home, or the in-person signature required to receive the parcel.

The main motive is how can we democratize autonomous technology? That’s kind of the mantra we have internally. How can we have different markets get access to autonomous technology, whether it’s through low cost or ease of market entry?

To further understand the problem when conceptualizing the venture, the team got out into the city and started picking up and delivering packages from around Doha. Using a toll-free number they advertised on social media, the team spent two months doing all kinds of deliveries, from groceries and food to laundry and personal gifts.

“The idea was to conclude how technology can solve this problem [in e-commerce]. What are the factors influencing how the customers behave when they order online or expect a delivery?” added Mohamedali.

The conclusion was to create autonomous vehicles that aid the ‘last-mile’ deliveries — picking up parcels from distribution centers and transporting them to people’s doorstep. Last month, Airlift partnered with Geeba, another Qatari/Dutch firm that provides a blockchain for delivery solutions, to launch driverless delivery vehicles in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

From QSTP to Rotterdam

Airlift is supported through the Product Development Fund at QSTP, which finances start-ups answering local market needs. According to Mohamedali, the support from QSTP has been particularly beneficial for the hardware-focused technologies employed at Airlift.

“The good thing about the people at QSTP is they understand the process of product development that requires some R&D, especially hardware,” he says. “You can prototype very fast in software, but hardware is a bit difficult, so they understand this fact.”

A video showing Airlift droids being tested with a partner company in Rotterdam. Mohamedali recalls that he spent months trying to obtain approvals from the transport and communications authorities in Qatar to test the droids, until the QSTP staff stepped in. “I remember this day when the director of QSTP’s Free Zone department came in [and after learning about our struggles] said: ‘Guys, you can test in QSTP. This is private property, and no one can say anything. Just let me know before you want to test, and I will inform the security,’” Mohamedali recounted, adding that they then successfully tested the droids within weeks.

According to Mohamedali, the idea of expanding to the Netherlands came about while his team waited to get proper licensing from the Qatari authorities to experiment with droids in Doha. “We thought of how we can do something without stopping the development and Rotterdam was the best solution for us,” Mohamedali said, adding that the heavy traffic and construction in Qatar also demanded a different setting.

“The whole concept we were running through is the fact that we can use this autonomous vehicle away from the traffic. So you are getting things delivered to the customers while you don’t have to wait for the traffic and the congestion. This infrastructure is there in the Netherlands. They have bike lanes and wide sidewalks. The amount of bicycles they have is crazy.”

The team was easily able to obtain licenses from the Dutch authorities and plans to deploy droids in Rotterdam in the coming year.

Democratizing autonomy

Mohamedali said that another purpose that keeps his team actively involved with creating logistical solutions is the will to democratize technology and make it easily accessible to everyone, everywhere.

Airlift won “Smart Logistics Solution of the Year” at Qatar IT Business Awards 2018. “The main motive is how can we democratize autonomous technology? That’s kind of the mantra we have internally. How can we have different markets get access to autonomous technology, whether it’s through low cost or ease of market entry?”

Mohamedali said he wants to create communities where if someone can think of a solution, he or she should be able to create that solution, without the restrictions of having access to technological resources, waiting for licenses, or worrying about other external factors.

In the near future, Mohamedali plans to expand the services of Airlift to Qatar, and introduce delivery vehicles in areas like the Pearl or Lusail City, so people are not only receiving delivery packages quickly but also at less cost.

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“In an environment like Qatar, you have extreme heat. It’s a desert. So sometimes it’s limiting people in businesses, and how they scale their business,” said Mohamedali. “I worked with microbusiness, and I know that some of them are actually making it not just for fun, but to make a living. So if I can make their life easier by providing them with something that’s attractive for their customers [through Airlift], they can grow their business even further and focus more on their product.”

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