DRONE DELIVERY UNDER GOOGLE'S WING
In the first of a series of posts looking at key players in the drone delivery market we take a peek at Wing, an emerging powerhouse in the global drone delivery market with enviable backing - headquartered in Palo Alto, California.
Backed by Google's parent company Alphabet and a graduate of their in-house 'moonshot factory' X, Wing is running commercial 'air delivery' trials in Australia, Finland and the US. Initial focus seems to incorporate both developing a B2C 'Uber Eats' style delivery service (on-boarding local retailers) and more strategic B2B partnerships with the likes of FedEx.
CORE TECHNOLOGY / PRODUCT
Wing have designed and developed a hybrid fixed-wing / multicopter UAV and associated Universal Traffic Management (UTM) platform that enables the public to order goods via a proprietary consumer-facing Android / iOS app or via integration with an existing partner's delivery infrastructure eg. via SMS delivery notifications. Notable features of the aircraft include:
1.3m / 3.3ft long unmanned electric aircraft weighing 4.8kg with 1m / 4.3ft wingspan,
12 fuselage mounted lift propellers for hover and two wing-mounted propellers for cruise flight at up to 113kph / 70mph at an altitude of c.45m / 150 ft
20km / 12 miles range with up to 1.5kg / 3.3lb payload capacity
Retractable tether system on base of aircraft enables automated package delivery from hovering height of 7m / 23ft
Thought to feature WiFi, GPS, IMU and at least one downward pointing camera
Believed to use Lithium Polymer 'LiPo' batteries
Wing has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA on their UTM since at least 2017 when they demonstrated automated real-time re-routing to de-conflict their aircraft and have them fly around eg. closed airspace, air ambulances or other UAVs, as well as showing that a single pilot could safely manage and operate multiple aircraft at once thanks to software that enables intelligent and dynamic re-routing.
Since 2017 Wing have worked closely with their domestic regulator on a variety of FAA programmes including the UTM Pilot Program at Virgina Tech as part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) which contributed to the company receiving an Air Carrier Certificate from the FAA and enabled the launch of the first commercial drone delivery service in the US to homes in Christiansburg, Virginia in October 2019:
James Ryan Burgess | CEO - 12/12 - present | Previously President - HatchTECH Design, VP Product Development - Distributed World Power, Director of Systems Engineering - Energy Innovations
Adam Woodworth | CTO 07/18 - present | Staff Hardware Engineer - Google, Aircraft Designer and SUAS Group Lead - Aurora Flight Sciences, BS Aeronautics and Astronautics - MIT
Dvir Zeltzer | Chief Finance and Strategy Officer '18 - present | Previously Head of Finance for X projects - Google [X], Global Finance Head - Google Partnerships - Google, Management Consultant - The Boston Consulting Group | Hedge Fund Portfolio Strategy - Magnetar Capital
Jonathan Bass | Head of Marketing & Communications - 05/18 - present | Previously Vice President Marketing & Communications - SolarCity / DBA Tesla Energy
Margaret Stewart Nagle | Head of Policy & Govt. Affairs 07/18 - present | Previously Head of Americas Policy - X, the moonshot factory | Head of Americas Govt. Affair - Yahoo!
As shown in the images below the Wing drones have been through several design iterations since 2013. All have incorporated a fixed wing element which is the most efficient method of cruise flight and enables range useful enough for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone delivery operations.
Note in the later iterations as the design matures from the 'Hummingbird' style prototypes from 2017 onwards the design largely remains the same, but in what's believed to be the most recent 'Series 7000' iteration from 2018 the twelve lift propellers have changed from a three to a four-bladed configuration in an attempt to reduce noise when hovering, possibly as a response to commercial trials in Canberra where local residents have complained about noise generated by the company's deliveries (more on this below).
The company is working on navigation and routing in GPS challenged environments (eg. in cities with high-rise buildings) using a cost-effective combination of cameras and Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) called 'visual-inertial odometry' (VIO) as an alternative to reliance on GPS / lidar-based navigation.
As Wing refine their technology they're also tweaking their messaging and proposition to both the communities over whom they propose to expand their drone operations and the commercial partners they seek to work with. The offering is 'air delivery' - which in select applications can prove a faster, more convenient and environmentally friendly alternative to road transportation, especially in remote areas or congested cities.
Food has proven a good test subject as it's sensitive to temperature, damage and time - though whether citizens are willing to tolerate the noise, public safety and possible privacy infringements of small aircraft over their heads just so someone can get a burrito or latte a few minutes quicker remains to be seen. In fact the noise of the aircraft has caused something of a backlash in one of the test zones in Australia with angry residents complaining about the whining noise and nuisance Wing's aircraft create to both them and local wildlife:
A switch to four-bladed lift propellers on the Series 7000 aircraft seems a direct acknowledgement that high pitched noise during hover has proved something of a problem - and note that the real sound of the aircraft is conspicuous by its absence from all the promotional videos.
Wing's chosen system architecture means that the drones must stay 'on-station' whilst the tether extends and retracts is in stark contrast to the parachute delivery chosen by Zipline in Rwanda:
Zipline's simpler solution was surely evaluated by the Wing team but might not be able to deliver goods to the accuracy and safety levels required for suburban operations in densely populated areas. Wing's trials showed that customers often want packages dropped in quite specific locations (eg. out of sight in back gardens) and around a plethora of complex objects such as power lines that must be both detected and avoided - there'll often be something in the way that's appeared since the last satellite map, aviation chart or even Google StreetView imaging vehicle performed its last sweep.
The technical challenges of building and operating a fleet of remotely operated UAVs safely are far from insignificant but leveraging the capital and technical skills of the Alphabet / Google family has seen the company make rapid progress. Access to Google Maps, Earth, StreetView and cloud infrastructure has certainly accelerated this development and should be considered a huge competitive advantage in the drone delivery market.
Google have never had as much success with their hardware as their software products however and it might just be that the B2B elements of Wing's business prove more profitable than their attempts at building an Uber Eats style B2C food delivery service. The UTM system alone could prove hugely valuable given the skills and expertise being amassed in-house - from computer vision, obstacle detection and avoidance to visual inertial odometry and Visual SLAM the company is amassing both talent and data at rates competitors will struggle to catch up with.
The combination of human intelligence and machine learning algorithms being thrown at huge sets of fused sensor data (eg. radar, lidar, GPS, cameras, IMUs) and diverse geospatial datasets (maps, weather, airspace, terrain etc) are no doubt yielding insights and expertise of enormous value. In addition the ability to dynamically route, control and navigate vehicles in complex environments can be applied to other autonomous vehicle applications such as self-driving ground vehicles, Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and even in commercial aviation.
It might well be that Wing evolves into a technology / infrastructure business rather than a consumer-facing brand - the integration with FedEx in Virgina hints at this future, eschewing the fancy in-house smartphone app for simple SMS alerts - from a customer's point of view it's just like any other FedEx delivery. With the unrelenting growth of e-commerce worldwide being a plug-and-play drone-delivery provider for logistics companies unfamiliar with aviation technology and regulations could be an easy sell for a company backed by Google's brand and technical know-how. Or they might make a success of it all - growing Wing into a popular B2C brand, a formidable B2B logistics provider and autonomous vehicle hardware and software experts.