Alphabet, the parent company of Google has been testing its delivery drones for a few years now. Project Wing was designed towards creating a commerce ecosystem using drones, opening up the skies for universal use. X Development LLC, the division undertaking the project is carefully building up the capabilities of its drones and the overall delivery technology through thousands of test flights.
The Delivery Drones
There are multiple considerations that come into the picture when building a delivery ecosystem using unmanned vehicles. While there are technical and physical limitations of pickup and final delivery (even more so if the locations are remote), navigation provides a separate challenge altogether.
Project Wing’s drones are fitted with sensors and navigation systems to help fly pre-planned routes, and other drones or obstacles. The drones are said to be able to safely deliver fragile packages to a spot “the size of a doorstep”. The company is also working towards developing an unmanned traffic management platform that can ensure various operators safely navigate the skies.
The first successful drone delivery to the public was made in early 2016, using an open field at the Virginia Tech University.
Project Wing in Australia
Project Wing is now looking to take its trials to the next level by partnering with a rural community in the border area of NSW and ACT.
The aim is to be able to make deliveries straight to people’s yards. This creates significant operational complexities, with having to identify safe and convenient delivery locations, while keeping in mind various obstacles.
Project Wing has tied up with a couple of Australian merchant chains, Guzman y Gomez (a Mexican food chain) and Chemist Warehouse (a pharmacy chain). The project will create a delivery ecosystem, wherein testers will purchase items using smartphones, which will then be picked up by Wing’s drones and delivered to the residences of the testers.
Project Wing is also looking at ways it could help the ACT Rural Fire Service in their fire fighting services.
Unsurprisingly, there are going to be quite a few operational challenges facing the drones, some obvious, some not so.
Possible Locations: Depending on the product, the desired delivery location could vary a lot. While food items and medicines will likely be required at doorstep, farm supplies or machinery may have to reach a specified area of an open property. Each delivery area has its own unique challenges, with its own layout of trees, fences, buildings and power lines. The systems need to be capable enough to identify safe and convenient delivery areas, identifying potential obstacles.
Loading and delivering packages: The drones need to be able to pick and deliver packages from and to anyone, anywhere. This requires a flexible and intuitive system that can handle packages of different sizes without using specialized infrastructure.
Logistics: Food and medicine may need to be delivered at the customer’s location at a specific time. The system has to adapt to ensure timely pickup and delivery of items. Items could come in various shapes, sizes and weights. The system should be able to optimize the number of items that can be delivered per flight.
Australia is a relatively more attractive option for testing drone delivery technology given its lax regulatory environment. The test flights over the next few months will help Project Wing understand the various challenges facing the doorstep delivery dream.
While we are possibly years away from a working commercial drone delivery ecosystem, these testing will help not only drone operators but possibly regulators as well, in pre-planning routes to avoid collisions (mid-air or with objects near ground).
Meanwhile, Matternet has begun ferrying medical samples between hospitals in Switzerland, while the DelivAir app has attempted delivering packages direct to the customers’ hands.