This interview was conducted in 2020.
What is Wing, and how did it get started?
Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), has built a small, lightweight aircraft and navigation system that can deliver small packages– including food, medicine, and household items– directly to homes in minutes. Created in 2012 as a graduate of the Google X program, Wing has conducted more than 100,000+ flights. We currently run services on 3 continents – Canberra and Logan in Australia, Virginia in the United States, and Helsinki in Finland. We believe drone delivery will improve the way our cities operate by reducing road congestion and creating new economic opportunities for local businesses.
To further those efforts, Wing has also developed services for Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). These UTM services enable drones to safely share the skies with manned aircraft making it possible to perform functions like emergency services and delivery at a much larger, more meaningful scale.
You are the first company to be granted an FAA Expanded Air Carrier Certificate. What does this mean for your operations?
In April of 2019, Wing was the first drone operator to receive Air Carrier Certification from the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), allowing it to operate a commercial drone delivery service. This was an important step for the FAA and the drone industry in the United States; the result of years of work to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.
In the US, Wing is operating a residential package delivery service in Christiansburg, Virginia — the first and only drone delivery service available to the general public in the United States at this time. In partnership with Walgreens we’re delivering health and wellness products like over-the-counter medicines, toilet paper, toothpaste and other home essentials. We’re also working with Brugh Coffee, Sugar Magnolia and Mockingbird Cafe – delivering their range of locally made food and coffee to the community. Wing is also working with FedEx Express to deliver qualifying parcels directly to the homes of customers.
How many Wing flights have been conducted to date? Has adoption remained steady or accelerated prior to the pandemic?
To date, Wing has conducted more than 100,000+ flights across three continents. During the height of the pandemic from February to April, use of our drone delivery service increased more than 500%. We saw the number of orders double from February to March, then again from March to April. Worldwide, we completed over 1,000 deliveries during the first two weeks of April, and later we saw that many in just 7 days. We’ve seen an approximate 350% month-on-month increase in sign-ups to our service across the world.
What were the key challenges to achieving that kind of scale?
Wing’s challenge was keeping up with how quickly things changed, and a moment when we realized how important it is that we’re able to help our customers.
In the US, in partnership with Walgreens, we’ve recently expanded our product offerings to include more products designed to help families stay at home — including grocery items like pasta, canned tuna, soups, fruit cups and baby food.
We also partnered with additional local eateries, so we can offer items like coffee, fresh pastries and hot made-to-order meals. Local businesses have told us that drone delivery is helping them offset some of the revenue losses from the lack of walk-in customers.
For example, the owner of Mockingbird Cafe, a Christiansburg (Va.) bakery, says drone delivery has accounted for about 25% of sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brugh Coffee, another Virginia merchant, is selling about twice as much cold brew coffee via drone delivery than it typically sold in-store before the pandemic.
You have high profile partnerships with enterprise companies like Fedex. How have these relationships changed with current global events?
Wing and its partners have worked closely together during COVID-19 to ensure that our customers can reliably get access to the things they need, without having to leave the safety of their home.
Since our partnership began in late 2019, Wing and Walgreens have been focused on exploring how delivery drones can improve the accessibility of healthcare. Our service in Christiansburg Virginia delivers over-the-counter medicines and other health and wellness items to customers on-demand, through the air, and within minutes of ordering.
Wing and FedEx Express are exploring ways to enhance efficiency of last-mile delivery service. Eligible FedEx Express customers who live within designated delivery zones in Christiansburg, and who opt in to the Wing delivery service, have also been able to receive some packages via delivery drone.
Does Wing work with small businesses as well?
Around the globe, Wing has partnered with over 30 local businesses, helping them expand their reach to customers. Especially during COVID-19, our local business partners have told us that drone delivery is helping them offset some of the revenue losses from the lack of walk-in customers. For example, the owner of Mockingbird Cafe, a Christiansburg (Va.) bakery, says drone delivery has accounted for about 25% of sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brugh Coffee, another Virginia merchant, is selling about twice as much cold brew coffee via drone delivery than it typically sold in-store before the pandemic.
One of the oft-overlooked benefits of drone delivery is the considerable benefit to the environment. Can you expand on how Wing’s technology can offer improvements for the environment over more traditional delivery methods?
Drone delivery is better for the environment than delivery by cars or trucks, as our all-electric delivery drone is incredibly energy efficient. Research we’ve done in Australia shows that small drone delivery produces 99% less emissions than pick-ups via car.
Additionally, having a Wing delivery drone replace a car trip reduces pressure on our roads. Car traffic is worse than ever– 313 of the 403 cities studied in TomTom’s annual Traffic Index had increased or unchanged traffic between 2017-2018. The World Economic Forum estimates that the number of delivery vehicles will increase by 36% by 2030, and so this problem will worsen.
Lastly, Wing is far safer for communities than delivery made by car. Wing’s lightweight, foam-based delivery drones are among the safest way to transport goods.
What do you see as key enabling technologies, such as sensor development or unmanned traffic management, that are going to allow the adoption of delivery drones to grow?
For decades, the aviation industry has relied on air traffic management (ATM) systems to keep the skies safe, but this current system of air traffic management (ATM) was built around the needs of traditional aviation. To manage the flow of air traffic, the system is heavily reliant on voice communications between air traffic controllers and pilots. This current system is ill-equipped to handle the unique needs of drone traffic in the coming years; delivery being one of many diverse use cases.
The unmanned traffic management (UTM) ecosystem is already taking shape to address drone integration, and Wing has been invested in building technology, creating standards and participating in public-private partnerships that are supporting the air traffic management ecosystem of the future.
Wing’s recommended approach to UTM is a digital and collaborative network of industry service suppliers that provide automated services to support drone operators. Each service would be verified and overseen by regulatory authorities to ensure compliance and safety.
So, Wing can rely on its OpenSky technology for complex flight planning required for drone delivery operations while another service provider could support blood delivery operations in Switzerland, and future providers would have the unique capabilities to support air taxis as advanced air mobility becomes a reality.
Open systems lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses that will support the growth of the unmanned industry at large.
What is your vision for the future of Wing in the long term?
Our vision is to continue to grow operations globally for our autonomous fleet of small, lightweight delivery drones that transport small packages directly to homes in minutes. We want more communities around the world to have access to our faster, safer and more environmentally responsible delivery service.
To get there, we will continue to support the development of an open UTM system that will enable the diverse needs of airspace users. We are encouraged to see industry and governments around the world working together to build consensus for a UTM framework and standards that will enable the growth of the drone industry at large and bring safety, accountability, and innovation to the new future of aviation.