Jonathan Bass spent 9 years work­ing for the solar indus­try at SolarCi­ty before join­ing Wing in 2018. He believes drone deliv­ery offers a sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fit for human­i­ty. Bass loves his work, find­ing it both excit­ing and fun.

Wing’s growth is impres­sive. By Sep­tem­ber 2021 the com­pa­ny had com­plet­ed 100,000 flights; 6 months lat­er 200,000; and this Octo­ber sur­passed 300,000. Wing should pass 500,000 deliv­ery flights next year. A recent sur­vey by Ger­man-based Research firm, Drone Indus­try Insights, ranks Wing as the sec­ond largest glob­al drone deliv­ery com­pa­ny behind Zipline.

Wing ini­tial­ly began as an X Project with­in Google’s Moon­shot Fac­to­ry. The first tests start­ed in 2015/16, lead­ing to more sub­stan­tial ones the fol­low­ing year. By 2019, Wing was suc­cess­ful­ly tri­alling deliv­er­ies in Chris­tians­burg, Vir­ginia; Helsin­ki, Fin­land; Can­ber­ra and Queens­land, Aus­tralia. Then, Covid-19 struck, lead­ing to a glob­al lock­down.

Chris Stonor Asks The Ques­tions

Was lock­down ben­e­fi­cial for Wing?

Our deliv­ery ser­vices were very pop­u­lar in the areas we could serve dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but it was dif­fi­cult to devel­op geo­graph­i­cal­ly. You couldn’t trav­el or organ­ise face-to-face meet­ings with reg­u­la­tors and poten­tial busi­ness part­ners.

How did the pub­lic ini­tial­ly react?

Peo­ple respond­ed real­ly well. It was espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar with old­er res­i­dents, who became ear­ly adopters, and par­ents with young chil­dren. The pop­u­lar­i­ty with old­er res­i­dents was a pleas­ant sur­prise for us. A drone deliv­er­ing prod­ucts to a home became a big event, espe­cial­ly dur­ing lock­down.

What have been some of the more unusu­al prod­ucts deliv­ered?

Library books come to mind. Spe­cif­ic cook­ies for The Girl Scouts Organ­i­sa­tion Pro­gram. A Wing employ­ee want­ed to pro­pose to his girl­friend, so we deliv­ered his engage­ment ring to a cho­sen loca­tion in a pub­lic park at the appro­pri­ate moment. Notwith­stand­ing the many rolls of toi­let paper and covid test kits dur­ing lock­down. Then there are the whole roast­ed chick­ens which fit snug­ly into the deliv­ery box. That is among the largest prod­ucts we can trans­port. 

In 2018, dur­ing a tri­al in Vir­ginia, we deliv­ered ice-cream amid an August heat­wave. The tem­per­a­ture was around 30 centi­grade with high humid­i­ty.

The drone trans­port­ed ice-cream and pop­si­cles, so we could show that due to the speed of deliv­ery, they wouldn’t melt. When we opened the first ice cream con­tain­er, the plas­tic spoon we used snapped in half because the prod­uct was still frozen. The exper­i­ment was a great suc­cess. 

Lat­er, a kid ran over, opened up a box, after it had been low­ered by a drone, and said excit­ed­ly, “Air­plane bring me pop­si­cle!” 

Which coun­tries are you deliv­er­ing in?

At present, there are pri­mar­i­ly three. Fin­land, Aus­tralia and Amer­i­ca.

For exam­ple, Fin­land has a tech-for­ward pop­u­la­tion. Wing was approached by Trafi­com (the Finnish Trans­port Safe­ty Agency), who showed great inter­est in tri­alling our tech­nol­o­gy. A loca­tion in Vuosaari, a neigh­bour­hood of Helsin­ki, was cho­sen. It was an inter­est­ing tri­al because the major­i­ty of Finns in that area live in com­mu­nal mul­ti-fam­i­ly hous­ing. This means deliv­er­ing to a spe­cif­ic per­son at a house is more dif­fi­cult and why open areas are pop­u­lar. 

Our first Finnish demon­stra­tion deliv­ery was ordered by the May­or of Helsin­ki, where a beach loca­tion was select­ed. We had to fig­ure out how to deliv­er the prod­uct to a pre­cise spot. Pic­nic areas in parks are also pop­u­lar, espe­cial­ly in the spring and sum­mer, where they become major social gath­er­ings after a harsh win­ter. We give the recip­i­ent an exact time for a drone arrival which elim­i­nates the oppor­tu­ni­ty of theft. 

How does your drone react to more extreme weath­er?

Our air­craft can fly in light rain and mod­er­ate winds, but we don’t fly in heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion or high winds. Most weath­er is okay. For effi­cien­cy and safe­ty, we’ve con­struct­ed a light­weight air­craft that weighs just under 5 kilos. 

The parts are most­ly plas­tic or foam rather like a bicy­cle hel­met, where there is a plas­tic cov­er­ing with a foam inte­ri­or. The mate­ri­als are rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive. Then there are the bat­ter­ies and designed avion­ics to con­sid­er. Most of the cost has already been incurred in R&D, but over time as more craft are man­u­fac­tured, the costs come down.

Tell me more about your present busi­ness part­ner­ship tri­als?

We have a vari­ety. Our most recent in Aus­tralia includes retail­er Door­Dash where cus­tomers can order through the Door­Dash app. We start­ed with sev­er­al thou­sand cus­tomers in Logan City, Bris­bane, who are able to order a range of con­ve­nience and gro­cery items, snacks and house­hold essen­tials, which are typ­i­cal­ly deliv­ered in 15 min­utes or less.

Anoth­er is with Coles, a large gro­cery chain. From ear­ly Novem­ber, cus­tomers in the Gold Coast sub­urbs of Ormeau, Ormeau Hills and Yata­la in south-east Queens­land were able to receive deliv­ery in min­utes, direct­ly from the Coles store at Ormeau Vil­lage Shop­ping Cen­tre. The ser­vice will grad­u­al­ly expand to include oth­er near­by sub­urbs, deliv­er­ing 500 of the most pop­u­lar Coles gro­cery items.

Next spring, Mir­vac, one of Australia’s lead­ing retail prop­er­ty groups, will be work­ing along­side us to trans­form under-utilised retail cen­tres into on-demand drone deliv­ery ful­fil­ment hubs. These hubs will make it pos­si­ble for more peo­ple to access the ben­e­fits of drone deliv­ery, allow­ing us to expand our reach into new neigh­bour­hoods and expand deliv­ery options for retail cus­tomers.

In the U.S, there are ongo­ing tri­als in Texas at the Dal­las-Fort Worth Metro­plex with Wal­greens, where our drones are deliv­er­ing prod­ucts to tens of thou­sands of sub­ur­ban homes in Frisco city and the town of Lit­tle Elm. Mean­while, tri­als con­tin­ue at Chris­tians­burg, Vir­ginia.

Most col­lab­o­ra­tions are open-end­ed, so there is no set time-peri­od. If the com­mu­ni­ty response is pos­i­tive, we car­ry on. Our ser­vice is flex­i­ble so any­thing that fits safe­ly into the deliv­ery box can be trans­port­ed. 

Mean­while, we have just start­ed tri­als in the Irish town of Lusk, close to Dublin. We are excit­ed because drone deliv­ery in this coun­try is being encour­aged and the pub­lic show a real appetite for it. 

Europe is also an expan­sion oppor­tu­ni­ty for us, although we are not ready yet to announce what coun­tries. I believe the FAA’s ARC rec­om­men­da­tions have the strong poten­tial to improve the drone pol­i­cy sit­u­a­tion in Amer­i­ca, and so 2023 could be an excit­ing year.

What about your Drone hubs or “Nests” as you call them?

A major ben­e­fit of Wing’s tech­nol­o­gy is how eas­i­ly and quick­ly a hub or “nest” can be set up. A hub only requires a small area and can be placed pret­ty much any­where, which makes it eas­i­er to scale deliv­ery ser­vices. We’ve already begun to co-locate nests with retail loca­tions and could do the same for health­care, logis­tics or oth­er types of organ­i­sa­tions in the future, essen­tial­ly mak­ing deliv­ery fleets for them.

Drone “Nest”

Recent­ly, there have been com­plaints in Logan, Bris­bane about the drone noise. What can you say about this?

We’re always open to feed­back and we’ll con­tin­ue to col­lect it, but I don’t feel the craft noise is a prob­lem at this stage; it’s gen­er­al­ly qui­eter than oth­er deliv­ery vehi­cles. We have effec­tive­ly addressed noise by reduc­ing the over­all sound vol­ume by approx­i­mate­ly 50% over time. The recent Bris­bane com­plaint aired on Chan­nel 9 was some­what unique, in that a res­i­dent was con­cerned that his neigh­bour was order­ing 20 prod­ucts in a sin­gle day. 

We sig­nif­i­cant­ly improved the noise pro­file of the drone by redesign­ing the pro­pellers and mak­ing a few oth­er mod­i­fi­ca­tions that not only low­ered the deci­bel range, but also sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced the pitch. You can bare­ly hear the craft when it is cruis­ing over your head. When it’s hov­er­ing and using the teth­er, it is still gen­er­al­ly qui­eter than a car or truck dri­ving past and much soft­er than a leaf blow­er or a lawn mow­er which can be oper­at­ed for 30 min­utes or so at a time.

What of the future?

While drone deliv­ery won’t replace ground trans­port because of the lim­it­ed size of the deliv­ery box, it is a par­tic­u­lar­ly safe, quick and sus­tain­able way to deliv­er small pack­ages. Our record is 2’47” from the moment of order to being deliv­ered. The typ­i­cal time for many items is 15’ or less, where 13’ of that is the prepa­ra­tion time and why take­away food, for exam­ple, arrives so fresh. The craft do not wait for traf­fic sig­nals, cre­ate con­ges­tion or air pol­lu­tion. They are a great com­ple­ment to larg­er trans­porta­tion vehi­cles. 

We are real­ly excit­ed about cre­at­ing new forms of deliv­ery for new types of prod­ucts that might not have been deliv­ered before and expand­ing access to such items. There are mil­lions of small pack­ages deliv­ered or picked up every day. 

Since join­ing Wing what have you learned about the indus­try?

I like to be involved in areas which ben­e­fit human­i­ty. I saw a tech­nol­o­gy that is safer and more sus­tain­able than oth­er deliv­ery meth­ods, and I felt it could real­ly help soci­ety. It is this that ties the Wing staff togeth­er — the poten­tial ben­e­fits of drone deliv­ery. Not only is this a fast and safe form of trans­port­ing prod­ucts, but it has tremen­dous poten­tial for car­bon reduc­tion and emer­gency response.

Mean­while, it is a fun indus­try to be involved with. My kids think I have a cool job. The expe­ri­ence of pulling an item up on an app; order­ing it; then select­ing a deliv­ery spot, feels like sci­ence fic­tion or even mag­ic. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly fun to watch kids expe­ri­ence it for the first time. Yet, it is not just the young, but the old­er res­i­dents too who became the ear­ly adopters. Our so-called pow­er-users. That has been an eye-open­er for me, as it is rare for a new tech­nol­o­gy to achieve this.

For more infor­ma­tion

(images: Wing)