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More than a gimmick? Alphabet’s Wing makes record 50k drone deliveries in Q1

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After a lot of flap, drone deliveries have mostly flown under the radar, but slipped into Google parent Alphabet’s earnings call yesterday, CEO Sundar Pichai revealed Wing tripled its drone deliveries between January and March 2022.

“In the first quarter of 2022, Wing completed over 50,000 commercial deliveries. That’s up more than three times year over year,” said Pichai on the call.

This surprisingly high number comes just weeks after Wing launched drone deliveries in Texas, serving the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs of Frisco and Little Elm. Texas joins Wing’s other US operations in Virginia, along with drone deliveries in Vuosaari, near Finland’s capital Helsinki, and two locations in Australia.

Wing’s 1.3m-long drones can fly at up to 65mph, and carry 1.2kg payloads up to six miles. The company operates “nests” at sites of delivery partners, including Walgreens, KFC and others.

As of 1 March 2022 Wing had made a total of 200,000 drone deliveries world-wide – so racking up 50,000 in three months suggests the Google drone spin-off is seeing significant growth. It took Wing three years to hit 100,000 deliveries in August 2021, and just seven months to double that number.

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Wing deliveries have faced turbulence, with residents in Australia complaining about the noise of the drones – including one unfortunate resident of Logan, Queensland, who claims to be on the flight path for drone deliveries, but can’t use the service themselves. In response to noise complaints Wing said it has developed quieter drones.

But compared to its nearest big-tech drone delivery competitor, Amazon, Wing is soaring high. Other than some high-profile stunts, Amazon’s drone deliveries have failed to get off the ground – last year the company made more than 100 people at its Prime Air UK division redundant.

As of October 2021 Wing and UPS were the only two companies with a full licence to operate delivery drones in the US, although six more are in the works. In the UK the CAA has licenced 10 companies to operate drones out of sight of the operator, and the government has indicated the CAA should work with new operators to grant them licences.

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One thing Wing or any other drone delivery company isn’t doing (yet) is completely autonomous drone deliveries – all drone flights are overseen by a human operator, although the flight planning is automated, and the drone flies on auto-pilot with human supervision. While Wing was conceived as a fully autonomous drone delivery system, completely un-monitored operation remains out of reach – as long as we don’t want 6kg of drone and payload plummeting out of the sky, anyway.

Wing makes a big play of its commitment to safety, and is also open about taking a slow-and-steady approach, adding delivery areas one at a time. This allows it to deal with problems such as noise, dog-scaring and even bird attacks.

As of now Wing has announced no plans to operate in the UK.

There is plenty of local drone delivery activity though; drone operator Skyports is working with Royal Mail to deliver to the Scilly isles, with its drones able to carry around 100kg. In Ireland Manna has made around 5,000 deliveries as of this month, with its drones able to carry up to 2kg.

This article was updated on 4 May 2022 to clarify the extent to which Wing’s drones operate autonomously.

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