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Wing Aviation LLC, the commercial drone delivery segment of Google parent Alphabet Inc., recently obtained Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, exemptions to support its “fast-mile deliveries.” The company claimed that the updated exemptions for its detect-and-avoid approach open the door for it to safely scale in the U.S.
The company first earned its Air Carrier Certification from the FAA in 2019. With that certification, Wing has begun a commercial drone service delivering goods from local businesses to homes in the U.S.
“Wing has had its regulatory approval since 2019,” Shannon Nash, the chief financial officer of Wing, told The Robot Report. “This is not new for us, this is expanding.”
This latest expansion allows the company to continue beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations without visual observers, something Wing has already been doing in Australia and Ireland.
“What this [grant] provides is the framework to not only still allow us to fly beyond visual line of sight, but also remove what are called visual observers,” said Justin Shore, chief of staff for public policy and government affairs at Wing. “So we have a couple of visual observers throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area and city that are really just looking at the airspace above them and making sure there’s no crewed traffic that is there right at that time.”
Wing’s drones will use its Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast-based (ADS-B) detection and avoidance (DAA) system inside a portion of Dallas airspace where traditional aircraft must continually broadcast their positions. The company said the expansion also enables it to deploy in similar airspace surrounding other major U.S. cities.
“At the end of the day, this new summary grant that we’re getting from the FAA just allows us to be more efficient and be able to pass that on to the consumer down the line, as we can expand,” Shore said.
Wing takes holistic approach to BVLOS flights
Wing said designed its drone delivery system to integrate into existing last-mile logistics services in urban and suburban areas. The company added that its drones fly in underutilized airspace over populated areas.
Wing asserted that its holistic approach to the BVLOS flights has led to successful commercial deliveries on three continents for several years now.
In the U.S., Wing works with FedEx Express and Walgreens in Virginia, and with Walmart in Texas. When a customer orders an item to be delivered by drone, employees at the relevant store package the order.
Next, a Wing drone picks up the order in designated spots, so stores don’t need to add infrastructure, other than Wing’s Autoloaders.
“When you think about a partner like Walmart, they already have processes in terms of how they get the goods outside of the store and deliver it,” Nash said. “You think of curbside pickup, and we saw the advent of that during COVID-19. So we aimed to not disrupt those processes of our customers.”
Drone deliveries leave the ‘nest’
Wing’s drones live in what the company calls “nests,” and they travel from the nearest nest to the store to pick up orders. Once the drone gets to the store, it picks up the items from Wing’s Autoloader.
“What the Autoloader does is it basically allows the person that we call the ‘pick packer’ who comes out of the store to load [the order] into the Autoloader and leave,” Nash said. “So then the drone can come and pick it up from the Autoloader and take off.”
The drones fly completely autonomously, according to Nash. No operators fly them remotely, but they are monitored to ensure they get to their destinations safely.
“It’s fast delivery. In general, it’s under 30 minutes,” Nash said. “You see a lot of our deliveries in that 10-minute time frame. In fact, our fastest delivery was just under 3 minutes.”
Customers can track their orders in real time on their phones using the Wing app. When the drone gets to the customer’s residence, it lowers the order using a tether and unclips the package. Once the order is fully unloaded, the customer can start unpacking.
Wing said it has completed more than 350,000 commercial deliveries to date. Nash noted that its most delivered item is coffee.
Designing with safety at the core
Wing drones don’t land when they pick up or drop off goods, increasing the safety of the system and making it less likely the drone might crash or hit someone as it lands. Wing said it conducts comprehensive aviation community outreach to work with other users in the surrounding airspace.
The company added that it has built a robust approach that separates its on-demand flights in time and space from one another and other aircraft using layered mitigations both before and during flights. This is similar to the systems that airplanes use to ensure safe flights.
This detect-and-avoid technology is used both in drones and in crewed aircraft.
“They call it ‘see and avoid’ in a crewed aircraft,” Shore explained. “If you’re a pilot, you’re looking out your window. If you see an aircraft, your job is to then move and avoid that other aircraft.”
“Well, in a drone, you can’t do that,” he said. “There’s no one on the drone looking out the window, so they call it ‘detect and avoid,’ and it’s a way to actually understand what other aircraft are around you.”
“It’s all about a bunch of different layers of safety that we put on to make sure there’s always another layer of safety that we’re taking into consideration while we’re flying,” Shore said.
Wing works to avoid disruptions
As it scales up its operations, Wing also works with the communities in which it delivers to ensure that its drones don’t disturb the people living there.
“We spend a lot of time in the communities in which we serve and really connect with them,” Nash said. “Even before we go into the communities, we do a lot of pre-work.”
For example, the company worked closely with representatives from the autistic community in Ireland to ensure its drones weren’t too loud when they flew overhead.
“A personal story for me, and one of my favorite stores of some of the pre-work we’ve done, is from when we were going into Ireland,” Nash said. “We spent a bunch of time meeting with autism groups there. I’m the mother of a 25-year-old autistic adult male, and we spent a lot of time understanding that community and how sound impacts somebody with autism in particular.”
Wing plans to continue to grow this year. In particular, the company said it hopes to establish more nests for its drones, expanding service area and potentially opening up new partnerships.