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Inside Google’s plan to deliver almost everything to almost everyone via drone
Your next fridge won’t come via drone. But almost everything else will.
Your next fridge won’t come via drone. Your next mattress won’t arrive from the sky. And your next TV won’t be airlifted from a central warehouse to your 45th floor condo or your suburban McMansion.
But just about everything else might.
“The vast majority of goods that folks order on-demand today can very easily be served by a drone delivery capability,” Adam Woodworth told me in a recent TechFirst podcast.
Woodworth is the CEO and former chief technology officer of Wing. Wing is an Alphabet company and therefore technically as a matter of corporate org charts a sister company of Google, but is essentially a Google startup that graduated from the company’s internal Google X idea factory in 2018. In early 2019 Wing received an air operator’s certificate from the FAA, officially making it an “airline” approved to operate in the United States, and since then it has delivered more than a quarter of a million packages, launching the first-ever commercial drone delivery service in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in April 2022.
Woodworth knows drone delivery isn’t for everything.
“If I need to move around a couple tons of gravel, I’m going to rent a dump truck. I’m not going to put it in the back of a four-door sedan.”
But on the other hand, most of what we order from Amazon, Walgreens, Starbucks, Walmart, or any of the other 1,045,422 brick and mortar stores and 1.8 million online stores in the U.S. doesn’t weigh a couple of tons. Most of it weighs just a few pounds, and most of it is currently transported and delivered in multi-thousand-pound exhaust-spewing trucks.
Not very efficient?
Drone delivery can be 10 times cheaper than old-school brown trucks, according to Irish drone delivery startup Manna. And clearly, the environmental cost of sending a light, electricity-powered drone to deliver a book, a medication, or a new computer mouse pad is orders of magnitude less than gasoline-powered ground transportation.
But there’s still a significant challenge. Sometimes you might want to order a Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, Vanilla Latte With Soy Milk (or a burger and fries), and sometimes you need a new toaster oven. Sending the same drone for both is at best inefficient and at worst impossible: the toaster oven is much bulkier and heavier.
Enter Wing’s plan: the so-called “Aircraft Library.”
“If you go to an airport and you look out on the runway, all the airplanes look different,” Woodworth says. “You’ve got big airplanes, you got little airplanes, you got airplanes with four engines and two engines. And that’s because they’re all designed for very specific functions.”
On a drone delivery scale, that translates to carrying 2.5 pounds for six miles, or carrying 15 pounds for 20 miles. It translates to delivering needed medication that is tiny and light but must be refrigerated to maintain efficacy, and therefore must be delivered speedily in hot Texan summers, to larger loads that don’t need quite the same speed or urgency.
Woodworth says that in the massive amount of flying and testing time Wing has done, the company has accumulated a massive amount of information on core reusable systems like avionics, motor controllers, battery management, payload delivery, and so on. Now the company is taking that and creating a reusable library of components that it can mix and match to create precisely the drone it needs at lightning speed.
“What we’ve done is started to spin up that development flywheel of building out different aircraft configurations that we bring to sort of like an advanced prototype level,” he told me. “If you think about all those elements as like construction bricks, we’ve happened to build them in this shape of a plane, but we could disassemble that and put them all back together and make it look like a rocket ship or, you know, make it look like a steamboat.”
The goal is being able to delivery small household items, but also shoes, and also a cordless drill. (Mine came in a package with a driver, batteries, and a charger, and weighed about 15 pounds.)
Ultimately, Wing will be able to pull out different mostly-finished designs from its library and get them up and running in a very short time when the need arises, Woodworth says.
That means that in a typical Wing “nest,” which is a combination drone airport, loading, recharging, and servicing area, you’ll eventually see four or five different types of aircraft. Wing typically locates its nests on the roof of a mall, large store, or distribution center. Each nest has multiple landing pads that essentially are circuit boards with positive and negative lines for wireless charging.
“The infrastructure has to be sort of similarly simple and similarly modular to enable these sorts of futures,” Woodworth says. “If you look at some of our more recent deployments in Australia, we put our nests on the roof of a shopping center. And at our most recent deployment in Dallas, the nest is actually in the Walgreens parking lot. And it’s sort of as simple as put down the pads … like all you need is enough space to put down pads, and a wall outlet to plug the pads into, and then the airplanes connect to the internet on their own. And that’s the sort of level of setup that I think the future necessitates.”
Currently, Wing offers ongoing drone delivery service in areas of Dallas, Helsinki, and Canberra. The company is working on expanding, but it’s not going to be instant. It’ll be more like adding a city here and there, and expanding zones of operation at existing facilities.
Ultimately, however, Woodworth says drone delivery should be virtually ubiquitous. Thanks in no small part to a highly-configurable library of drone designs that the company can adapt to multiple purposes on command.
“Right now, like you’re moving single pound packages in multi-thousand pound vehicles, and there are just more efficient, lower impact ways to do that. And Wing is fundamentally about eliminating that friction and sort of bringing that vision to reality.”