In the past few months, we’ve had plenty of news in the drone delivery space. While regulations don’t appear to be making room for beyond line of sight flight anytime soon, several companies are still pushing forward with ambitious aerial delivery projects. In certain cases, the life-saving potential of the technology has been a major factor when granting waivers/permission for operations. Today, we’ve got an update from arguably the biggest company with drone delivery plans, Google. So what’s been going on with Project Wing?
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been running trials of Project Wing in a rural community on the border of the ACT and NSW in Australia this fall. The aim has been to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing drone delivery: safely dropping off packages directly into people’s yards.
Testing Project Wing in the Real World
In a blog post published yesterday, James Ryan Burgess, co-lead at Project Wing, described how testing has been progressing in Australia with real-world customers:
“Our testers — alpaca farmers, math professors, equestrians, and artists (not to mention a few curious kangaroos) — have been helping us fine-tune how our drones move goods from where they’re located to where they’re needed. And today we’re announcing that two Australian merchants are joining our tests, as they’re eager to understand how drone delivery could help them serve their customers better. Guzman y Gomez, a Mexican food chain, and Chemist Warehouse, a chain of pharmacies, will receive orders from our testers who’ve purchased items using the Project Wing app on their smartphones. We’ll dispatch our drones to pick up the order from our partners’ loading sites and then transport and deliver the goods to testers at their residences.”
The move to start delivering Mexican food is guaranteed to make headlines, but Project Wing is going way beyond burritos. It seems like the team has a good understanding of what people want to be delivered. But what about the how?
Identifying safe and convenient delivery locations
Project Wing’s first deliveries with members of the public were last year at Virginia Tech, to an open field, not a particular address. Now, with each delivery, their aircraft’s algorithms get smarter and will eventually be able to pick a safe spot for deliveries in spite of trees, sheds, fences, and power lines.
That training process is complicated by customer preferences: “Many of our testers would like packages delivered to backyards so they’re not visible from the road, or near kitchens so food items can be unpacked quickly. And we have to be ready to accommodate changing conditions at the delivery location.”
“While our unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform lets us pre-plan a flight route, the sensors on our aircraft are responsible for identifying obstacles that might appear during a flight or delivery, like a car parked in an unexpected spot, or outdoor furniture that’s been moved.”
Another of Project Wing’s challenges is developing a system that businesses and deliverees can easily interact with. “Project Wing must be able to pick up packages from anyone, in almost any location. This presents an interesting design challenge: our technology must be intuitive and easy to use, so packages can be loaded and received without any specialized infrastructure and by people without specialized experience.”
The Project Wing team will gather data from its latest test partners in their continued effort to develop a simple-to-use system that any person or company can adopt with ease. As with its drone delivery competitors, it may be some time before these rural tests, albeit successful, advance to meet the hype that’s built around the concept of aerial delivery.
Sure, it’s happening. But progress, particularly in terms of legislation, is glacial. We’d stick to ordering your Mexican food the usual way for now.