As of this afternoon, select residents of Christiansburg, Virginia can tap drones operated by Google parent company Alphabet’s Wing for quick and easy deliveries of packages, over-the-counter medications, snacks, and gifts. The company today revealed that it’s become the first to operate a commercial air delivery service directly to homes in the U.S., with the launch of a previously announced pilot involving FedEx Express, Walgreens, and local Virginia retailer Sugar Magnolia.
Sugar Magnolia will box up birthday cards, small gifts, and sweets for drone delivery customers. From Walgreens, the first retail pharmacy to partner with Wing in the U.S., drone fleets will ferry over-the-counter medicines and other wellness items to folks’ homes. And on the FedEx Express side, recipients living within designated Christiansburg zones who opt in will receive some shipments via drone, in customized boxes. (Wing says that FedEx will complete its first scheduled ecommerce drone delivery today.)
Most orders within the four-mile radius of Wing’s distribution facility are fulfilled within about 10 minutes, according to the company.
The pilot was made possible by the small-sized air carrier designation Wing secured from the Federal Aviation Administration in April. The recently expanded classification — which was initially created to cover traditional charter flights — allows the company’s multiple pilots to oversee multiple unmanned aircraft making commercial deliveries simultaneously. Under current drone-specific regulations, companies can’t exact payment for deliveries over distances beyond a human operator’s line of sight.
Earlier this year, Wing became one of the first to launch a commercial drone delivery service after Australia’s civil aviation authority, Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), granted it approval following more than four years of testing, 70,000 flights, and 3,000 deliveries. Around 100 homes in the suburbs of Crace, Franklin, and Palmerston have access to the service currently, and if all goes well, it will expand to customers in Harrison and Gungahlin.
Current-gen Wing drones can fly at speeds of up to 78 miles per hour and travel up to about 6 miles, and they can take off and land vertically thanks to a dozen vertical rotors and two propellers. Automated flight-planning software determines their route, while a downward-facing camera and other onboard sensors help them avoid obstacles.
Wing’s drones hover about 20 feet in the air during pickup. A tether lowers, and a human operator hooks the package onto the line. The drone winches the package and secures it, after which it travels to a designated location the yard or driveway and lowers and releases the package. Once it detects the package has touched down safely, it heads to the next pickup spot or returns to Wing’s “Nest” in North Christiansburg.
The sophisticated tech could result in a substantial savings for — and smaller carbon footprint from — local businesses, Wing contends. A commissioned report cited $9 million in annual cost savings, while a Rand Corporation study forecasted a 6% reduction in energy usage compared to trucks.
But it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.
According to a Wall Street Journal report last year, Wing’s drones have disrupted the lives of some longtime residents, who say that they no longer use their yards as much. (The company says it’s working on quieter and lower-pitched propellers.) User error has resulted in at least one accidental delivery, and the drones are sometimes forced to land due to high winds and obstructions.
In September 2016, the company partnered with fast-casual chain Chipotle in the U.S. to deliver orders for a small group of Virginia Tech students. But only a month later Wing canceled a tentative collaboration with Starbucks over disagreements regarding the handling of customer data, according to Bloomberg.
Despite these bumps in the road, Wing is intent on forging ahead. Wing CEO James Burgess recently announced the company would launch a free 10-minute drone delivery trial in Helsinki, Finland for items weighing 3.3 pounds or less up to a distance of 6.2 miles. Flight trials began earlier this year in Tampere and continued through the winter.
Alphabet isn’t the only company field-testing autonomous delivery drones, of course. UPS formed a new drone delivery subsidiary in July, which it said will seek FAA approval to operate commercial flights. Amazon launched a trial of its Prime Air drone delivery service for select customers in Cambridge, England in December 2016. Microsoft and startup Flytrex have trialed airborne delivery services in cities like Holly Springs, North Carolina and Wichita, Kansas. In March, Matternet teamed up with UPS to launch an aerial delivery service from WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus in Raleigh. And in May, Uber announced plans to deliver food by drone in San Diego.
Reports show the commercial drone industry continues to grow quickly, albeit from a small base. A 2017 forecast from Gartner projected the number of commercial drones sold that year would exceed 174,000. Moreover, about $454 million was thrown at UAV startups in 2016 alone, and the market is forecasted to be worth $127 billion by 2020.