Wing, the delivery-by-drone company under the Alphabet umbrella, is unveiling its new remote operations center where pilots can track multiple missions at once. The newest facility is stationed in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, the same place it makes local deliveries for companies like Walgreens.
The Texas location allows operators to easily manage drone flights across time zones, particularly those in both Virginia (the company’s first delivery location) and nearby Little Elm, Texas. Wing also has another center in California and plans to build more. The edge connected with Wing spokesman Jacob Demmit and drone pilot Tom Hillier on a video call for a demonstration.
Operators like Hillier use multiple screens, some of which show live feeds from “nests” – which is where Wing drones are parked on charging pads and waiting for a charge. Screens above the pilot offices show live video from multiple places, including Texas, Virginia and even Australia. Having these nests on site, such as in the Little Elm Walgreens parking lot, “allows partners to do their own order fulfillment,” Demmit said.
From those Walgreens, the drones have an authorized delivery range of 4.5 miles (though it’s technically capable of about six miles). The radius includes approximately 50,000 homes eligible to order through the Wing app. However, those residents cannot yet order prescriptions, only over-the-counter and out-on-the-floor items.
Once an order comes in, trained employees at the Walgreens link orders to the drone and it automatically calculates its route and autonomously takes off to deliver the package. Hillier then shows us Wing’s OpenSky software that helps with flight tracking. Pilots monitor bad weather so they can cancel deliveries that could be affected. There is no joystick for pilots to manually fly the drones at a distance.
Remote monitoring Wing drones is like viewing a Google Maps overview
Essentially, remote monitoring with Wing drones is like viewing a Google Maps overview with GPS location dots on the screen plus some telemetry data like speed and altitude. While the drones have built-in black-and-white cameras for self-navigation, pilots like Hillier can’t see a live feed from them. Also, if there are problems before, during or after the mission, the pilots contact ground support who can start doing things like nudge a drone that hasn’t started charging.
Demmit says the drones charge wirelessly on the pads, self-diagnose from there and send the information back to the remote operations center. When fully charged, they can fly a round trip of 12 miles, and that’s with a maximum payload of about three pounds. Wing is working on building larger, higher-capacity drones.
Charging a drone takes “a few minutes” after a short trip, according to Demmit. He stressed that there are about 20 of the flyers in rotation at any given time, and believes any of them are unlikely to get a low battery. Texas operations run five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wing has had the most success in Australia, where there are now 1,000 deliveries a day, with coffee being the main mode of transport there. In the US, the company is the first to receive “Part 135” certification from an airline, making it possible to operate out of line of sight and okay to fly over people. It is also active in Finland at Helsinki and soon in Ireland at Dublin. According to the website, the company has passed the 300,000 delivery mark. It’s a good head start for a relatively small-scale operation, as other companies like Amazon catch up.