The Wing drone's payload is lowered on a tether; the c-drone does not land except at the Wing hub to recharge its batteries. Image: Wing

Alphabet c-drone unit Wing obtains US certification for remote deliveries; Virginia first

Logistics • freight • delivery

Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the Google parent, has obtained Air Carrier Certification for commercial c-drone deliveries from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as part of the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP), the company said in a blog post. Significantly, the FAA air carrier certification usually applies to small airlines, not drone operations; this means Wing will be able to deliver throughout the US. Deliveries are scheduled to begin later this year in Blacksburg, Virginia, site of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) which is a participant in the UAS IPP in that state.

In a statement, US Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said:

This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy. Safety continues to be our Number One priority as this technology continues to develop and realize its full potential.

This announcement follows a large pilot program in Canberra, Australia, where according to Wing over 70,000 test flights, and 3000 deliveries to residential addresses in a handful of neighborhoods have been performed since 2014; commercial service from local businesses, mostly of food, drinks and over-the-counter pharmeceuticals, went live two weeks ago.

The Wing c-drone is powered by batteries, takes off and lands vertically with twelve rotors on two booms, and transitions in midair to winged flight with two rotors. The craft does not land for deliveries; small packages up to 2.6lb (1.2kg) are lowered to the ground from the nacelle on an extendable tether from an altitude of 23ft (7m), then released. The c-drone climbs to at least 66ft (20m) altitude, then returns to the Wing hub to recharge on a pad. Flight is automated and Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS), but monitored by remote pilots through an Unmanned aircraft Traffic Management (UTM) system. Residents order and track items online through a smartphone app supplied by Wing; the average delivery time from order to delivery from a local merchant is 7 minutes and 36 seconds, according to Wing, with more than half the average time spent in order preparation by the merchant.

Wing also plans to start delivery trials in Helsinki, Finland, and as in Canberra, is soliciting feedback from the public as to what types of cargo should be carried. Weather conditions in Helsinki will present more of a challenge to Wing than Canberra.

Some residents of Canberra have been bothered by the buzzing noise of the Wing c-drones over their heads, or concerned about their privacy or security. A three-month public consultation on the project closed at the end of February; over 150 comments were received, many vehemently protesting the deliveries. One resident, Andrea Sheather, a member of a non-political community action group called Bonython Against Drones, said in a 34-page submission [PDF]:

[The drones] can be heard from inside closed houses, even with double-glazing, and it is going to get worse when people have their houses open in warmer weather… bird life has enormously decreased in the area… dogs are reportedly stressed and injuring themselves as they are spooked by the drones, neighbours are complaining because of the dogs barking continually on flight days… we have video evidence of bird strikes.

Another resident, Irena Kolak, said [PDF]:

The invasive noise of the aircraft (a high pitched, strong motorised noise, with a loud howling noise that is haunting) woke my household in the morning. I was shocked at how loud they were, given it was winter, windows were closed, and the central heating was on. I found it hard to think when working from home, and my children found it hard to concentrate on school work, as every time a drone flew over my house, the noise could not be blocked out or ignored. If any of us were unwell, we were unable to sleep during the day, as every drone that flew over our home woke us. For example, one Saturday afternoon I had a migraine, and the invasive high pitched noise of the drone was so painful to me, I turned the extraction fan on in my ensuite to listen to it, to help me block out the noise of the drones. After 7 weeks of living under the flight path of the drone aircraft, the noise was seriously wearing us down… I noticed a flock of pink galahs that lived at the front of my house were gone. Thankfully the birds came back two weeks after the drone trial finished in February 2019.

I found other residents in my neighbourhood were very upset about the drone noise too. It was the talk of the suburb. Elderly residents were upset by the noise… A veteran was so distressed by the noise it triggered his PTSD and he had to go back on his medication. Another resident, a WW2 veteran, said the drones made him distressed because they reminded him of bombing during the war… Dogs barked more often and for longer periods when the drone trial was on.

In its own submission to the consultation on February 27 [PDF], Wing noted negative feedback had been received and supplied these figures for that feedback:

  • 91%: concerns regarding noise
  • 28%: concerns about the effects of drones on wildlife or pets
  • 15%: concerns about privacy
  • 11%: concerns that there was insufficient community consultation prior to the start of the trial
  • 7%: concerns about safety

In response to these concerns, the company stated:

Community dialogue was essential to help us identify and resolve challenges. For example, a number of residents registered feedback about noise. By engaging with those residents, we found that a majority of complaints referred to the 10 second hover during delivery.

In response to that feedback, we adjusted our flight routes to reduce the frequency of overflights, and also reduced the drone’s speed, which helped to lower the sound generated. Additionally, and most significantly, we invested in the research, design and construction of a new noise abatement propeller that reduces the volume and pitch of the drone during a delivery. Our newest aircraft are now equipped with this propeller design, and we intend to use that technology on our delivery drones going forward.

We also received feedback from some residents in the community who indicated that their dogs were bothered by drone noise. Because we only have anecdotal feedback, we started discussions with a leading research university. We hope to partner with them in the very near future to develop a more scientific framework for understanding the impact of drones on dogs and other domesticated animals and possible forms of mitigation.

Wing strives to reduce any negative impact on birdlife and other animals native to Canberra. As with dogs, the effects of drones on birdlife has been largely anecdotal. We believe more scientific evidence is needed to better understand the impact on ACT birdlife. We have started conversations with the Canberra Ornithologists Group, as they have expertise in understanding and studying ACT birdlife. At the time of this submission, those discussions are underway.

At our test site in Bonython, birds were regularly present and did not seem to be bothered by the frequent operation of drones. In our customer flights into the Bonython neighbourhood, and in our thousands of test flights conducted in Australia, we have no record of our drones striking a bird. On a few occasions, we observed magpies during mating season swooping towards our drone while hovering, without incident.

Wing is constantly striving to improve its drone delivery technology based on community feedback. Wing seeks to offer a delivery service that provides food and household items to ACT customers in the fastest, safest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly way. We recognise that the only way for drone delivery to be successful is to provide a service that our customers find useful, and the larger community considers acceptable. We look forward to working with regulators, policymakers, local businesses, customers and the larger community to achieve this outcome.

At this point in time, it is an open question whether so-called last-mile commercial deliveries to residences by drone will be accepted by the public. Bell (formerly Bell Helicopter), a unit of Textron Inc., has renounced last-mile drone deliveries in its strategy. Michael Thacker, Executive Vice President for Technology and Innovation at Bell, said in a speech on January 30:

[Our Autonomous Pod Transport] vehicle can transport goods for multiple distances, such as distribution center to distribution center, or to storefronts and potentially last-mile delivery. However, Bell is not targeting the last-mile delivery to your door, which is fraught with potential issues like privacy, property damage, and theft to name a few. We are focused on moderate payload, mid-range operations that are in most cases being served by trucks today.

In North Carolina, United Parcel Service (UPS) and California’s Matternet have partnered with the FAA, North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), and WakeMed Health & Hospitals for regular hourly medical sample deliveries on the hospital’s campus, and food deliveries with Flytrex are expected to begin in the next two months. A UK study found that the public was more accepting of drone use for first responders and public safety than commercial last-mile deliveries.