Wing, the drone delivery company operated by Google parent Alphabet, is poised to collect 100,000 deliveries. The company says it will cross the threshold in the coming days, an important milestone for a technology that has yet to prove its usefulness on a large scale.
Drone deliveries began to capture the public imagination in the early 2010s as consumer quadcopters dropped in price and AI control systems became more reliable. Then, in 2013, Amazon made wild promises to make drones a standard part of its delivery empire. But so far, the technology has mainly found success on a much smaller scale: delivering high-value but physically small items like vaccines and blood to remote locations.
However, Wing’s success suggests a future for drone delivery could be in the suburbs.
Wing currently operates in three countries: Australia, USA and Finland. The biggest success was in Logan, Australia, a suburb of Brisbane where more than 50,000 of the total deliveries have been made. Logan has a population of approximately 300,000 and Wing’s service is accessible to just over a third of this population. Users can download the Wing app and get a small selection of goodsincluding coffee, groceries, sushi, pastries, pet food and sportswear. Deliveries generally take place in less than 10 minutes, and Wing’s record for a delivery is two minutes and 47 seconds from order to arrival.
Speak with The edge Via email, Wing spokesman Jonathan Bass said Wing’s expansion into Logan demonstrates the company can “build a secure, scalable service that communities will embrace.” Said Bass: “There are hundreds of cities around the world, just like Logan in size: New Orleans, USA; Manchester, England or Florence, Italy, just to name a few.” He noted that more than 2 billion people live in cities with populations of 500,000 or less, although he also added that Wing has ambitions to operate in larger cities as well.
Part of the reason for Wing’s success seems to be its design specifics. Wing’s drones can operate both as a fixed-wing aircraft and as a hovering helicopter. Unlike Amazon’s delivery drones, the planes also don’t have to land to deliver goods. Wing’s craft fly to their location, descend to a height of seven meters (23 feet), then lower their packages on a chain, automatically releasing them to the ground. A recent report from wired on Amazon’s struggling drone delivery program in the UK identified the need for the company’s drones to physically land on the ground as a major technical challenge.
However, all drone delivery methods limit the technology’s customer base. In densely populated urban areas, customers are unlikely to be able to find a suitable delivery location near their home. For example, wing users must find “small areas with no overhanging trees, power lines, or other obstructions, usually in the front yard, backyard, or driveway” to receive a delivery, Bass says. These are in short supply for many city dwellers, including those of Florence, Italy — one of the locations Bass himself mentioned earlier.
It’s also not clear whether the economy of drone deliveries on a larger scale will make sense. Bass says he is “extremely optimistic” about Wing’s potential profitability, and that drone delivery is “significantly cheaper to scale than existing ground-based delivery methods,” but such claims must be proven by growth and profits. Drone delivery is still a young technology at the moment, but it can mature quickly.