Wing, the drone delivery company operated by Google-parent Alphabet, is about to rack up 100,000 deliveries. The company says it will pass the threshold in the next few days, a significant milestone for a technology that has nevertheless yet to prove its utility at scale.
Drone deliveries began to catch the public imagination in the early 2010s as consumer quadcopters fell in price and AI control systems became more reliable. Then, in 2013, Amazon made wild promises about making drones a standard part of its delivery empire. But so far the technology has mainly found success at a much smaller scale: delivering high-value but physically small items like vaccines and blood in remote locations.
Wing’s success, though, hints that one future for drone deliveries might lie in the suburbs.
Wing currently operates in three countries: Australia, the US, and Finland. Its biggest success has been in Logan, Australia: a suburb of Brisbane where more than 50,000 of its total deliveries have been carried out. Logan is home to around 300,000 residents, and Wing’s service is accessible to just over a third of this population. Users can download the Wing app and order a small selection of goods, including coffee, groceries, sushi, cakes, pet food, and sportswear. Deliveries are generally made in under 10 minutes, and Wing’s record for a delivery is two minutes and 47 seconds from order to arrival.
Wing spokesperson Jonathan Bass said Wing’s expansion in Logan shows that the company “can build a safe, scalable service that communities will embrace.” Said Bass: “There are hundreds of cities around the world just like Logan in terms of 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 fewer, though he also added that Wing has ambitions to operate in larger cities, too.
Part of the reason for Wing’s success seems to be the specifics of its design. Wing’s drones can operate as both fixed-wing aircraft and hovering copters. Unlike Amazon’s delivery drones, the aircraft also don’t need to land to drop off goods. Wing’s craft fly to their location, descend to a height of seven meters (23 feet), and then lower their packages on a tether, automatically releasing them onto the ground. A recent report from Wired about Amazon’s struggling delivery drone program in the UK identified the need for the company’s drones to physically land on the ground as a major engineering challenge.
All drone delivery methods, though, limit the technology’s customer base. In densely populated urban areas, customers are unlikely to be able to locate a suitable delivery location at their house. Wing users, for example, need to find “small areas without overhanging trees, power lines or other obstacles, typically in the front yard, backyard or driveway” to receive a delivery, says Bass. These are in short supply for many city residents, including those of Florence, Italy — one of the locations Bass himself mentioned earlier.
It’s also not clear if the economics of drone deliveries will make sense at a larger scale. Bass says he’s “extremely bullish” about the potential profitability of Wing, and that drone delivery is “significantly less expensive to scale than existing ground-based delivery methods,” but such claims need to be proven through growth and profits. For the moment, drone delivery is still a fledgling technology, but it might be growing up soon.