Wing says drone deliveries are taking off madly where they're allowed
Drone delivery technology is ready to rock, says Alphabet's Wing spinoff, ushering in a wild new era in which small deliveries can touch down within minutes of being ordered, traveling across town at highway speeds. The only holdup at this stage is red tape, and in the few places where that's been cleared away – like the Australian city of Logan, Queensland – drone deliveries are already proving very popular.
Wing says it's already made a whopping 50,000 deliveries in Logan, where it kicked off activities in 2019 through its own app and service, flying out coffees, snack packs, BBQ chickens, sushi rolls, hardware items and a range of other small packages on demand. Eleven local business are acting as suppliers at this point.
That volume, says the company, makes Logan the world's drone delivery capital. Or at least, the world's legal drone delivery capital, anyway. Operations in Christiansburg, Virginia, as well as Helsinki, Finland and Canberra, Australia, have kicked in a further 50,000 deliveries between them, and Wing says demand for the super-fast delivery service is growing at an impressive rate wherever it's made available. The company tells us that deliveries grew by 500 percent from 2019 to 2020, and that in Q2 2021 it made more deliveries than in all of 2020.
Wing uses electric, autonomous, lift-and-cruise style multicopter drones – quite large ones at 1.3 m (4.3 ft) long with a 1.5-m (5-ft) wingspan. Each weighs 4.8 kg (10.6 lb), and can carry payloads up to 1.5 kg (3.3 lb). They run 12 vertical lift propellers and two forward propellers, giving them a top speed of 104.4 km/h (64.9 mph), and they're capable of round-trip distances up to 20 km (12 miles). There are multiple batteries and navigation systems for the sake of redundancy.
Packages are loaded up attached to tethers. The drones fly themselves autonomously using Wing's own air traffic control systems as well as onboard cameras and sensors. When they reach their destination, they hover at an altitude of 7 m (23 ft) and gently lower the package down on its tether, unclipping it when it's on the ground, then retracting the tether and flying home. If somebody grabs the package while it's still on the string, the drone simply lets go of the string and nicks off before anyone tries to grab anything else.
Wing has had Virginia Tech do some research on how people feel about the idea of drone deliveries, and says that support for the idea ranges between 23 percent and 50 percent of people in areas that don't offer the service, but is closer to 90 percent in places where it's established and available.
Anecdotally, not everyone seems terribly impressed, as evidenced by the colorful Australian language in this reddit thread from five months ago, written by a resident living under a Wing flight path. "I'm getting buzzed by these things 5-10 times an hour, every hour, of every day of my life," says user MM-dot-AU. "The soundtrack of my existence is now these drones just whizzing past my place, and they're really not very high up either." Indeed, according to Forbes, Wing's aircraft cruise at a curiously low altitude around 45 m (100 ft).
MM-dot-AU goes on to say the 60-plus drones a day overhead appear to be scaring away local bird life, which is a consequence worth considering. On the positive side, Wing seems to have gone some way towards addressing this in May, reducing the noise of the drones by about half. And helpfully, MM-dot-AU updated the thread two months ago, saying "The traffic has actually backed off a bit. Dunno if it's related to flight paths or their promo weekends no longer happening but yeah... My neighbour and I were speaking over the fence when one of the quieter ones flew past and to their credit it was significantly better."
So it seems noise is more of a teething issue than a show-stopper. Drone deliveries are absolutely part of the future of urban life, and these autonomous pack-mosquitoes certainly have the potential to make some things better. They'll get things to your door faster than ever before – gratification will be more instant than ever, and cheaper than ever, without adding traffic to the roads or burning fossil fuel like a scooter rider. In that sense, they'll also be safer for city residents as a whole, because they won't cause any road crashes.
Wing will continue expanding its services, focusing initially on small cities with populations under 500,000, where local aviation authorities will permit them to operate. It'll sure be interesting to see how long it takes for such services to become fully certified for autonomous deliveries on a nation-wide basis; these will be no less disruptive than Uber wherever they launch.
Check out a short video below.