In many ways, drone delivery still looks very promising in terms of scalable e-commerce. In smaller, controlled pockets, however, the concept plays out beautifully. Among the spots is a small Google satellite campus in the foothills of Palo Alto. The buildings, which adjoin the largest offices of Tesla and HP, are home to a handful of Google divisions, including Nest and Wing (an accidental theme, we imagine).
Fixed-wing drones are a regular sight in small airspace, thanks to the latter. The front parking lot is quickly transformed into a launch pad to test these systems and various associated mechanisms. Wing deployed a handful of its delivery planes when I visited the company this week, in part to demonstrate its new system.
Parking lots are an ideal launching pad in a rural area, assuming you can block it off from cars. They are ubiquitous and provide a clear trajectory for vertical takeoffs. As such, it’s no surprise that they’ve become essential to the company’s approach to ensuring delivery in dense suburban areas.
This is a market that the young company has been focusing on for some time. I have long suggested that the ideal application of these technologies is more in rural areas and places with poor transportation infrastructure. This makes a lot of sense for emergency deliveries to places with impenetrable roads.
“My belief on this is that delivery will always require a bunch of different offers, in the same way that if you show up at an airport there are short haul flights and long haul flights and there has aircraft designed to take 300 people across an ocean,” CEO Adam Woodworth tells me as we watch the team prepare for launch. “The market segment we’re most focused on is dense suburban, se closer to the campaign. There’s immense demand there. That’s where people are getting the kind of order numbers that have skyrocketed during the pandemic.”
The pandemic has also seen the emergence of curbside pickup. As many establishments temporarily closed and consumers continued to fear exposure, it became a quick and easy middle ground between online and in-store shopping. Although this seems largely temporary, many stores have maintained what has proven to be a popular option, especially in suburban markets.
The prevalence allowed Wing to rethink an approach that previously relied on an employee being present when handing off the drone.
“The original idea was, could you just lock it to the sign (curbside pickup)?” said Woodworth. “The opportunity exists with the existing workflow. How can you make the plane work like a rising car? How do you get the plane to pick up the box, rather than the person having to sync it to time? It took a long time to get a robust mechanical solution that doesn’t require more electronics.
Despite its name, the AutoLoader is an entirely passive system. It’s about four feet tall, not including the two PVC pipes sticking out the front like a pair of horns. Operation is simple. After the order is placed, an employee wraps it in a cardboard box with a plastic ring on top that looks a bit like a Happy Meal. Loading it onto the platform is simple: you place the two pegs onto the AutoLoader through a pair of holes in the box.
When the drone passes, it flies over the AutoLoader a bit to assess the situation and make sure everything is fine. If he encounters a problem that he cannot correct (for example, the employee forgot to upload the package), he will return to the hub. A disadvantage of the fully passive system is that it cannot alert the drone or operate on potential problems.
If all looks good, the drone lowers a tether, while the two poles ensure it doesn’t drift too far from the target. Once the tether is properly positioned under the box, it begins to retract, hooking the payload like a fishing line, pulling it up for travel. Once the drone reaches the pickup point determined by customers, it gently lowers the box to the ground. This area should be about six by six feet, with no foliage obscuring the area.
Admittedly, the length of the Wing building is significantly shorter than the trip these drones will make in the wild, but things went well on the first demo. The Wing rep opened the box and I helped myself to the banana inside, ruining my lunch. Suddenly it occurred to me that there was a better way to test cargo. I asked one of the Wing employees for a soda.
The drone repeated the trip (although the specifics of its approach are somewhat hit-and-miss) and lowered the cargo. The wing employee opened the box, grabbed the coke bottle inside, and removed the cap. There was no exploding foam – a sure positive sign. He took a sip for posterity.
“We anticipate that by the end of the year we will be rolling them out to parts of our operations,” says Woodworth. “And then in the middle of next year, the full delivery network will have them.”
Wing does not provide details on the number of drones currently in operation. Instead, the company quantifies growth by how many deliveries it has completely. It has made more than 340,000 and claims to have built “thousands” of drones in its lifetime. Australia accounts for the bulk of its shipments, followed by the United States, with Europe ranking far behind.