2020 was a big year for Wing delivery drones, and it looks like 2021 isn’t slowing. Wing is a sibling company of Google, having spun out of Google X in 2018 (when it was then known as Project Wing) to become an independent Alphabet company. And since then, it’s been full speed.
Wing, which focuses its U.S. deliveries primarily in Christiansburg, Virginia, said it saw a 5x surge in demand from customers wanting to get items delivered by drone since coronavirus lockdowns began. The company has a few partners including Fedex, Walgreens and a small retailer called Sugar Magnolia to deliver products to the homes of Christiansburg residents who sign up for the Wing delivery program. Since coronavirus, Wing has grown its delivery items to include household essentials like pasta or baby food.
Never seen Wing delivery drones in person? Curious about their design? Here are 6 things you should know about Wing delivery drones:
1. Wing delivery drones don’t actually land on the ground when delivering packages
Wing drones fly to their delivery location, but their legs never actually touch land. Instead, the drone slows to a hover and descends vertically to about 23 feet above the ground, upon which it’ll lower your package through a tether-type mechanism.
Once the drone can sense that the package has made contact with the ground, the drone’s hook releases the package automatically.
That solves two problems: customers can stay a safe distance from the drone and won’t have to get anywhere near underneath its spinning rotors. And, customers don’t need to have any sort of landing pad infrastructure in their homes.
2. And they don’t land to pick up packages either
A store sending off a package to be delivered doesn’t need a landing pad either. The process for picking up items from merchants is very similar to dropping off the items to customers.
To pickup an item that needs to be delivered, the drone flies to the pickup location and hovers that same ~23 feet above ground, lowering a tether so the merchant can place the package on a specialized hook. Then, the drone retracts the tether and secures the package for flight so it can head on to the customers’ location.
3. Drones fly 100 to 130 feet above ground
Most drone flights are flown at 100 to 130 feet above the ground. That’s slightly less than the height of The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France or The Chicago Water Tower in Illinois. Theoretically that’s high enough to avoid trees and other obstacles on the ground, but low enough to avoid manned aircraft, which typically do not fly that low.
4. Wing drones are equipped with ADS-B
As a way to avoid collisions with manned aircraft (which typically carry ADS-B transmitters), Wing drones use ground-based ADS-B receivers. Wing is also conducting trials to explore how drones with onboard ADS-B receivers can automatically detect and avoid other aircraft.
5. The airframe can break easily (and that’s a good thing)
The lightweight airframe of Wing drones is covered in foam and frangible components (that means that in a crash, the airframe would tend to break up into fragments, rather than staying in one piece and deforming to the shape it crashed in). Yes, it’s supposed to be that way in order to improve safety should the drone crash to the ground.
6. They deliver all sorts of surprising items
Among the items that Wing drones have delivered: library books, medicine, roasted chicken, Chipotle burritos and hot coffee. That last one seems like a challenge, right? Wing promises that its unique aircraft design allows it to hold the package steady, without spills.