Alphabet’s subsidiary Wing announced this week that it has officially launched a commercial drone delivery service “to a limited set of eligible homes in the suburbs of Crace, Palmerston and Franklin,” which are just north of Canberra, in Australia. Wing’s drones are able to drop a variety of small products, including coffee, food, and pharmacy items, shuttling them from local stores to customers’ backyards within minutes.
We’ve been skepticalabout whether this kind of drone deliverymakes sense for a long, long time, and while this is certainly a major milestone for Wing, I’m still not totally convinced that the use-cases that Wing is pushing here are going to be sustainable long term.
Here’s how it works:
I’ve still got a bunch of questions about these things. For example, does the drone have any kind of in-flight sense and avoid? How much yard space does it need to lower the package? Is there a parachute in the event of a catastrophic failure? Can it fly when it’s raining?
But these are just a few technical questions, and a lot of my skepticism for this kind of delivery service is related to whether it’s commercially viable. First, my guess is that these drones are expensive enough to build and operate (with remote pilot supervision) that making money with them involves high utilization rates. I’m concerned that Wing has been getting lots of very positive feedback from people it’s been talking to about how often they’d use the service, but that’s a trap that happens with robots all the time: Robots are so cool that of course people will tell you they want them, but once the novelty wears off, they have to prove themselves like any other product, and that usually boils down to cost and convenience.
For example, Wing mentions people who “simply just want to order [their] morning flat white without the hassle of having to drive to the cafe.” I would expect that people who love coffee would definitely try it out, maybe even for a few weeks. But I’d also expect people to realize pretty quickly that waiting for a warm-ish coffee to be noisily delivered to your yard for what may possibly be a hefty premium in cost may not be worth the trouble, especially when getting your morning flat white is probably already part of your routine. And then there’s the issue of how much weight the drone can carry: Can you get two coffees delivered? Two coffees and some pastries?
Wing seems to be promoting meal delivery as something people would want frequently as well, but again, unless you’re just ordering for yourself, it’s probably going to take multiple drones to deliver enough food for even a small family. And in the suburbs, that puts Wing in direct competition with a much more efficient delivery person in a car (and in the near future, a variety of sidewalk robots and autonomous vehicles as well). Wing is offering to deliver things in 10 minutes by drone compared to, say, 20 or 30 minutes by car. Is that enough to make it a competitive service?
The other big question here is whether these drones are worth the annoyance, because from the sound of things, they’re incredibly annoying. And noise pollution can be a big deal indeed: just remember the Concorde. Wing itself makes sure to put upbeat soundtracks over all of its demo videos so that you can’t hear the drone, but it’s pretty bad (fast forward to 1:15):
Wing’s response to the noise problem (when the Wall Street Journal asked them about it in January) was: “It’s a new noise that human ears aren’t used to hearing at this point.” That’s basically the company addressing the problem by saying “you’ll get used to it eventually.” Wing has said that it’s working on quieter drones, but it remains to be seen how much of an improvement is possible.
To be clear, I am very much in favor of delivery drones, when they make sense. I think they’re an ideal solution for delivering small, high-value, time-constrained supplies to areas that are hard to reach by other means. I could also see delivery drones eventually being an efficient way of delivering things to rural communities that are very spread out, which was Wing’s initial approach in Australia.
So I’m glad that Wing is trying this. If anyone can make it happen, it’s probably them, and I’d be delighted if they manage to show that the service can be both commercially sustainable and embraced by the community it serves. But whether they succeed or not in this specific case, drone delivery certainly has a future, even if it’s not in the suburbs.
[ Wing ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.