Alphabet’s subsidiary, Wing, has set an ambitious target of developing a drone delivery network technology capable of handling tens of millions of orders within the next 12 months.
The company believes that operating drones as a network will improve efficiency, and it is already testing the technology “at scale” in Logan, Australia, where it delivers up to 1,000 packages a day. The company has also started trial drone deliveries in the Dublin suburb of Lusk and is in talks with the UK’s Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority about agreeing to regulations that would allow drone deliveries in the country.
Wing’s Chief Executive, Adam Woodworth, envisions the delivery system as “more like an efficient data network than a traditional transportation system.” In the trial phase, Wing is delivering groceries, prepared food, and even coffee. At present, consumers are not charged extra for drone deliveries, and the company has not disclosed what they may ultimately cost. However, to be financially viable, drone companies will have to make a large number of deliveries, according to experts.
Dr Steve Wright, of the University of West of England, said that it was unsurprising that Wing was one of the companies trying to make large-scale drone deliveries viable. “The first question that is being grappled with right now is regulation. However, the next question is looming large – how to manage and direct this vast number of robots. I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that Wing and Amazon share one clear heritage – big data.”
The Wing Delivery Network comprises three basic hardware elements: the delivery drones, pads where drones take off, land, and recharge their batteries, and autoloaders that allow companies to leave packages for collection. Using these elements, Wing says, drones can pick up, drop off, travel, and charge in whatever pattern makes the most sense for the entire system, rather than just flying from one base to a customer and back.
An advantage of the system working as a network is that it can quickly adapt to peaks in demand in particular areas. Charging-pad locations can also be added rapidly. The autoloader, which resembles a pair of fishing rods angled in a V shape, allows shop staff to hang small packages from a hook, and the drones hover above to winch them up. The system also involves a high level of automation, and ground-based pilots can supervise fleets of delivery drones to ensure they are operating safely and efficiently.
Mr Woodworth said that more civil-aviation regulators around the globe were adopting rules that would allow these sorts of operations. However, there are challenges to be overcome, including noise complaints from some Logan residents. Wing has invested “a lot of work into making the aircraft as quiet as they can be,” according to Mr Woodworth. Planning software has also been designed to avoid creating “drone highways,” where every flight passes over the same houses.