A Q&A with Alexa Dennett, Wing's Head of Go-to-Market

Wing saw a 500% increase in orders last year, set a new delivery record Saturday, and flew more last week than it did in all of January
article cover


· 9 min read

Wing was incubated within Google X in 2012. The group made its first real-world drone delivery two years later, then spun out of X in 2018 and became its very own Alphabet subsidiary. Wing has completed 100,000+ flights to date.

Alphabet’s “Other Bets” include Waymo, Wing, and a handful of other research projects metamorphosing into commercial ventures. The Other Betsies lost $1.3 billion in Q4, and while Alphabet doesn’t break out much operational data, we know the leash is getting tighter. More than ever, Wing and co. are expected to commercialize and avoid cost overruns.

The good news for Wing is that business is booming. We recently caught up with Alexa Dennett, Wing’s head of go-to-market and growth, who makes a bold proclamation about drones, pasta, and energy efficiency. You can find that tidbit and the rest of the convo below.

NB: This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

Prior to the call, you just shared all of this fresh data about drone deliveries. Let’s dive in there. Was last year an inflection point for Wing?

The pandemic has obviously been awful for everyone, but a slight silver lining for us as a business was that more people could try drone delivery. The contactless nature made for a pretty interesting value proposition. We were fortunate to be set up in a few communities around the world where we could provide even just a small bit of relief and save people from going out.

Tell me a little bit about your active markets.

We have two sites in Australia: one in Canberra, the capital, and one in Logan, which is the fastest-growing city in the country. We have a site in Christiansburg, Virginia, and a series of operations in Helsinki, Finland.

Last year, we had an absolute explosion of order volume as people were getting anything from their dinner to toilet paper. Fast forward to this year. In Australia, where there's virtually zero active coronavirus cases in the population, we've still seen this sustained increase in drone delivery adoption.

Wing drone delivers a package somewhere in Australia. Credit: Wing

For me, that's probably the most fascinating piece of all this. Intuitively, I’d think demand for a drone delivery services would plateau with more vaccination and everyone resuming their normal lives. The early data from Australia suggests I’m wrong?

We increased our deliveries by 500% last year. We've seen new daily records the past two Saturdays. We made more deliveries in the past week than we made in the entire month of January. (Ed. note: We spoke on Friday, March 5. The Saturdays referenced here are February 19 and 26. The "past week" is Feb. 28-March 6. Wing confirmed with us over the weekend that on Saturday, March 6, it did indeed set another new delivery record.)

People experimented with this concept last year, given the circumstances of the pandemic. Now, we’re seeing that they’ve taken to developing a habit around drone delivery, given the convenience and speed. And a larger proportion of consumers care about carbon emissions. Drones are very tiny, lightweight, and energy-efficient.

How energy-efficient?

It takes more energy for you to boil pasta on your stove than it does for us to deliver you a box of pasta.

Interesting. Bold claim. For most of 2020, I was running all these stories about the pandemic and surging levels of demand for robotics products, from self-driving stuff to retail bots to drones. Returning to the Australian case study, do you think those post-Covid demand patterns will be reproducible in Virginia and Finland? What about future markets where consumers aren’t at all habituated to drone delivery?

Just speaking to what we've observed in Australia and the first part of your question, the broad adoption is kind of insane. We have everyone from elderly people who are mobility-limited to what we call the Wing groupies getting groceries delivered by drone. We also get tons of feedback from young parents, who are grateful they don’t have to bundle their kids in the car to go get a loaf of bread. They’ve been key early adopters for us. Usually you see younger people as the early adopters, but some of our most avid fans even in the United States are in their eighties.

We're actually really optimistic that those who didn’t have Wing during the pandemic will still be encouraged and incentivized to try it. We have very high adoption and retention rates, higher than industry averages for normal car delivery services, and we saw that prior to the pandemic.

So, all of this newfound demand, are there catalysts beyond the pandemic?

We’re always seeking to improve our offerings, adding new merchants, and increasing the amount of things you can get delivered by Wing. So, that plays a part.

There’s an interesting parallel here that just struck me: Your sister subsidiary, Waymo, has mentioned that many early beta users stay on as loyal customers. I suppose that retention makes sense. I know if I could use drone or AV networks in Austin, I’d be doing so.

Same for me in San Francisco.

What do your customers order most frequently?

It depends on the market. We spend a lot of time looking for local merchants that are well-loved in the community, and our services look quite different depending on where you are in the world.

This technology is really a paradigm shift. No matter how fast a delivery driver can bring you a Cappuccino, it won’t be very nice by the time it gets to you. We can deliver in sub-10 minutes, and deliver fragile products, like packages of eggs.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.

We see patterns of delivery that you wouldn't see with land-based services. I’m Australian originally. In Australia, coffee is huge and we deliver everything from cappuccinos to lattes. It’s Australian summer right now and quite warm. We deliver a lot of ice cream on the weekends to kids, which is pretty fun.

We also sell a lot of meals. That’s pretty global. Everyone values the ability to have hot food sold and brought to them.

In the US, we work with Walgreens and deliver health/hygiene products like toilet paper and toothpaste. We’ve also partnered with a number of popular local businesses in Virginia. One store we’re partnered with is Brugh Coffee, which does a really popular cold brew. That’s probably the most popular product there. (Ed. again: We couldn’t cut this, because Brugh is pronounced "Brew." Companies with Brew/Brugh in their name watch out for each other).

Wing drone flying over Finland

Wing drone flying over Finland. Credit: Wing

Wing drone flying over somewhere in Finland. Credit: Wing

How do you evaluate target markets? What’s the criteria?

We consider what traditional delivery businesses look for, but obviously there’s also the regulatory component. Is it a market where we can start operating in the near-term?

A lot of cities, states, and nations are coming to us and asking for drone delivery. We’ve done a lot of previous work in semi-rural and then urban areas. We’re moving up the density scale—Logan is fairly dense.

In new markets, we’re looking at an additional layer of ‘How can we test in unique conditions and geographies?’ We look for places that will help us learn something new about our technology. Finland was super attractive because of the weather, which is some of the most extreme in the world. Their winters are pretty tough and the Finns are pretty robust people.

This winter, we've done a lot of testing really high up north in Finland to make sure our drones can operate in really, really cold temperatures and snow.

So I know that this is likely to be shot down with a big ole' no, but can you say anything about new markets you’re looking at?

*chuckles* I would love to share that with your readers but I can't unfortunately. What I will say is that we are looking to expand in the US this year, as well as globally. That’s definitely in the cards.

How about the regulatory picture? I’ve been talking about this a lot recently with drone folks. I’m sure more FAA rulemaking and clarity around commercial drone deployment are exciting developments for you?

Yeah, absolutely. The FAA and other regulators have taken a real crawl, walk, run approach to drones. We understand that and welcome any kind of positive movement forward that helps the industry.

How do you find retailers for your network? Are you sourcing based on products conducive to drone delivery? Is it an inbound process? Or some combination of the two?

We’re always looking to expand. At the moment, we have about 30 partners globally. We get a lot of inbound from different companies, assess use cases, and see if it's a fit for what we're looking to trial and learn.

New partnerships can be as crazy as us getting an email from someone and realizing ‘geez that’s a good idea.’ Customers sometimes come to us with suggestions. Last year, for example, we started delivering library books in Virginia. A customer of ours, a school librarian, was worried her students wouldn’t have access to books. We quote-unquote partnered with the school system and have done hundreds of book deliveries.

One of the key things about our model that sets us apart from others is that we’re trying to help all businesses. We’re not trying to deliver our own stuff. We're creating a system of drones, software, and services, and envision a world where partners can be big or small businesses. Size won’t matter. They'll be able to use our technology to deliver goods in a faster, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly way.

I’m no stranger to the fact that predictions are tough with newer technologies. But I gotta ask—do you have a sense of where Wing and drone delivery writ large will be five years from now? Or are you thinking in much shorter increments?

Look, it's super hard to predict the future. But if our customers’ feedback is anything to go by, yeah, we're really excited. Based on trends we've seen, more people will use drone delivery and get habituated. It will become more of a staple of everyday life. Regulators will have more data and we hope that will lead to more permissive regulations.

Governments are driving toward the Paris Agreement and climate-based policymaking. Drones will be seen as part of a solution towards decarbonizing last-mile delivery. I'm optimistic that this is a technology that's here to stay.

We recently published our Guide to the Drone Age—check it out here. For more Q&As, read our two-parter with Skydio, one of the world’s newest unicorns and the first US drone maker to reach the club, and our convo with Flytrex, a Wing competitor.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.