Wing brings its ‘store-to-door’ model to the US with Dallas-Fort Worth deliveries

It's Wing’s first on-demand drone delivery service in a major US metropolitan area.
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· 4 min read

Last week, ice cream fell from the sky in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

No, it wasn’t raining dairy and waffle cones: It was part of Wing’s first on-demand drone delivery service in a major US metropolitan area, something the Alphabet-owned company and its partner, Walgreens, have been working toward since October.

The new service allows drones to deliver health and wellness products, pet medication, and first aid kits—and, yes, ice cream—to “tens of thousands” of homes in the towns of Frisco and Little Elm. That makes DFW the world’s largest metropolitan area with access to on-demand drone delivery, according to Wing, although only a portion of the city is covered as of now.

  • One key factor limiting coverage: The FAA requires that any drone operator keep the device within unaided eyesight (read: no binoculars) of a visual observer at all times during its flight.
  • The drones have limited capacity, too: Packages must weigh less than 2.6 lbs.

Emerging Tech Brew chatted with Alexa Dennett, Wing’s head of communications, about Wing’s plans for scalability, regulatory approval, and more.

Plan and process

Wing’s drones start their official journey from Walgreens parking lots, with no slingshot or drone launch pad. Walgreens employees will pack orders in boxes and, once an order is ready, a drone will fly over from its charging site, hover at about 100 feet, and lower its hook. An employee will attach the box, and the drone will follow its autonomously-charted flight route, automatically unclipping the package from its hook when it reaches a customer’s yard.

Dennett called this the “store-to-door” model, and said last week was the first time Wing has tried it out in the US.

“It’s Walgreens in control of fulfilling all of that order, and that’s the first time this has happened,” Dennett said. “So we’ve been focusing on making that process efficient, and this is how we believe that the Wing drone delivery will scale in the United States and globally.”

Humans out of the loop

There’s “absolutely no human in the loop” when it comes to deciding where to lower the package, charting the drone’s flight, or navigating it back to its charge pad, Dennett said.

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“From the very moment that, say, a customer orders ice cream, Wing’s systems program a very safe and energy-efficient route for the drone to fly from its charge pad to picking up the ice cream, to delivering it, and all the way back again.”

Where humans come in: “We have pilots overseeing the flights of our drones, and they can intervene on an exceptions basis,” Dennett said. “So in the very, very unlikely incident that anything goes wrong, the pilot overseeing multiple drones can make a decision to ask the drone to land where it is or in the nearest safe area to land.”

  • Dennett added that when it comes to pilots overseeing a group of drones, the ratio “differs wildly between countries”—although each pilot oversees up to eight drones in Wing’s DFW operations, “that number is significantly increased” in Australia and Finland.

The company declined to comment on the specifics of its machine-learning models or autonomous training processes.

Supply chain and regulatory hurdles

“Like all companies, I think, we’ve had our challenges,” Dennett said. “Our rate-limiting factor for expansion hasn’t been our ability to produce drones….In the United States, what has been our rate-limiting factor is really regulation.”

  • For the company’s Walgreens partnership in DFW, Wing needed to place visual observers in elevated areas along the route to satisfy legal requirements.

Dennett added that in Wing’s Australia and Finland operations, regulations allow the company to fly “beyond visual line of sight, without any visual observers,” which has allowed the company to “demonstrate the ability of our technology to do a lot more.”

Zoom out: From January 1 to March 1 of this year, Wing performed 30,000 flights, and last year, it delivered more than 100,000 packages worldwide—most of them occurring in Australia. The company is racking up milestones, but for context: Amazon delivered about 11.5 million packages every single day in 2020.—HF

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