Wing upends drone delivery model, made possible by new Autoloader tech

Alphabet’s Wing, the sister company of Google, has long been the leader in consumer drone deliveries. And today, it’s giving its operating model a major overhaul, thanks in large part to a piece of hardware called Autoloader.

The company today announced what it’s called the Wing Delivery Network.  This is a new operating model set to deploy over the next year that upends the straightforward drone delivery process where a drone picks up a package at one point and drops it off at another within a single flight. With the new, more advanced Wing Delivery Network, drones linked through the Wing Delivery Network will be able pick up, drop off, travel, and charge in whatever pattern makes the most sense for the entire system.

In short, a drone might take off from its home in the morning, then make a delivery to a customer, then land somewhere else, charge up, then land somewhere else to pick up a different package, and then deliver it to a new home, and so on — all without ever returning to the original point of origin.

It’s all theoretically more efficient, and it makes perfect sense. If you had eight errands to run in one day, you likely wouldn’t go to the store and back home, then out to the doctor and back home, and then out to your kids and back home, etc. You’d stack those errands to cut back on drive time. And that’s effectively what the new Wing Delivery Network is doing.

Photo courtesy of Wing.

How the Wing Delivery Network works

The Wing Delivery Network is a decentralized, automated system designed to better support high-volume drone delivery, whether across a major metro area or a more sparsely-populated region.

It relies on logistics automation software to allocates hardware resources, which in this case are landing pads (which allow the drone to takeoff, land and recharge their batteries), autoloaders (more on that later) and the delivery drones themselves.

The company also says Wing Delivery Network can automate compliance with local regulations. Each time the aircraft turns on, it automatically checks that it’s in the right place, has the right software, and is ready and approved to fly. 

Wing described it all in a detailed, 5-minute video it shared, below:

Why didn’t the Wing Delivery Network exist earlier? Look to Autoloader

It seems so logical — so why didn’t drone deliveries operate with this model earlier? That’s because the new Wing delivery drone operating model is largely contingent upon a new piece of hardware called the Autoloader.

The Autoloader is a contraption that sits outside, commonly placed in a parking space. The system doesn’t even require a power or data connection. A retailer would place it outside their store and — when an order comes in — a store employee loads the package into the Autoloader (the AutoLoader includes a spot where store employees can latch packages without waiting for the drone to arrive). After that, the store employee can walk away and presumably return to other tasks. From there, the Wing Delivery Network ‘talks’ to a drone, telling it to fly over and retrieve a package, and from there deliver it to a customer.

The Autoloader in a parking space, just as a drone picks a package up from it. Photo courtesy of Wing.

That solves a problem where employees would need to wait for a drone to be ready for them, and then they’d have to load the package. With the Autoloader, the process for retailers to engage in drone deliveries is reduced to simply placing the package on the Autoloader — no waiting for the drone to fly up, and no having to load it themselves.

Wing is describing it as curbside pickup but for drones.

Here’s a quick, one-minute glimpse of the Autoloader functioning as robotic, aerial curbside pickup:

The rise of Wing drone deliveries

Wing is generally seen as the second-largest drone delivery company in the world, coming in behind Zipline. But the two are wildly different. Zipline largely focuses on deliveries of medical products to rural parts of developing countries, mostly in Africa. Wing focuses mostly on delivery of consumer products such as Walgreens drugstore items, gifts and sweet treats from Sugar Magnolia, to-go food from DoorDash, among others to people’s homes, in a few select areas around the U.S., Australia and soon, Ireland.

And given the overall market capitalization of Wing’s parent company, Alphabet, Wing is by many metrics the leading drone delivery company of them all. But Wing is hardly resting on its laurels, having constantly iterated and improved on its drone delivery model.

It operates a one-of-its-kind remote operations center (well now, there are two, beginning with the first in Palo Alto, California and a second one later added near Dallas). It’s kind of like an air traffic control tower that you’d see at an airport, but it’s for drones, and only for Wing’s drones. Just like traditional air traffic control tower, Pilots in Command (or PICs) stationed in these remote locations are not focused on one aircraft, but rather are overseeing multiple simultaneous flights across entire service areas. But unlike those towers,  these controllers aren’t seeing the drones take off or land at all. In fact, their offices cover such broad areas that they can even span multiple time zones.

That’s a very recent development for a company that has experimented with things like delivering from the rooftops and from parking spaces adjacent to retail stores.

Wing says it plans to roll out “elements” of Wing Delivery Network capabilities over the next year. Sometime in mid-2024, the company is projecting that its system will be capable of handling “tens of millions of deliveries for millions of consumers.” And that’s not its only bold prediction: it says it’ll all be done “at a lower cost per delivery than ground transportation can achieve for fast delivery of small packages.”

The Autoloader. Photo courtesy of Wing.

What Autoloader could mean for the future of Wing drone deliveries

One-off drone deliveries are surprisingly easy to complete. You can buy drone hook release and drop devices made for off-the-shelf drones like the DJI Mavic 2 series for less than $200 (drone not included) on Amazon.

Scaling is the hard part. Wing has managed to scale up, to be sure. It claims that it has delivered a record one thousand packages in a day, across a delivery region of more than 100,000 people.

But even then, there are still limitations, of highly-trained staff supervising the whole ordeal, which wouldn’t be realistic should drone delivery exist in every city. The Autoloader should enable it to scale even further — and could be essential in helping it reach goals far bigger than 1,000 packages in a day.

“Wing’s ultimate vision is to deliver people’s packages more efficiently and safely as part of an automated logistics system that routinely moves packages by the millions,” according to a prepared statement by Wing CEO Adam Woodworth.

Wing is expecting that the Wing Delivery Network will be a game changer, as drones will now be able to pick up, drop off, travel, and charge in whatever pattern makes the most sense for the entire system. That’s largely due to more charging spots, as pads can easily be added around a city.

Photo courtesy of Wing.

But not only will the Wing Delivery Network scale in sheer delivery numbers; the company says it expects that improved tech like the Autoloader will help it to scale financially, too.

“The economics of drone delivery improve dramatically with scale, and all of the salient metrics (access, safety, and sustainability) become far more meaningful at large volumes,” Woodworth said.

And he says that Wing’s new drone delivery model is different — and better — than all the other drone delivery companies out there.

“Up to this point, the industry has been fixated on drones themselves — designing, testing, and iterating on aircraft, rather than finding the best way to harness an entire fleet for efficient delivery,” Woodworth said. “Wing’s approach to delivery is different. We see drone delivery at scale looking more like an efficient data network than a traditional transportation system.”

Photo courtesy of Wing.

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