Google’s drone delivery service Wing: first-ever mall to home service

the wing delivery drone

Do you want sushi delivery by drone? Ice cream or coffee in 2 minutes? Wing is Google’s drone division (OK, Alphabet’s!) and is doing just that right now in three locations around the world.

Wing has been delivering via drone at scale for about two years now from a central distribution center. Today, however, they announced a major change: the creation of what I’m calling “droneports” on the roofs of malls. This is a global first: rooftop drone stations at malls, with the first one in Australia. Retailers don’t have to ship their products to a distribution center where they can be flown out by drone; they can basically just ship it right out of their location in the mall.

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For anyone using the service, it’s incredibly easy. You order on an app, a retailer preps your item, attaches it to a drone, and it flies to you at 110 km/hour. You watch it get closer on the app, and get a notification when it’s arriving.

Wing is planning to scale globally and in the U.S., but are working out all the kinks and regulatory permissions. In this edition of TechFirst, we’re chatting with Jonathan Bass, Wing’s head of marketing and communications.

Scroll down for a full transcript, or check out my Forbes story here

 

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Full transcript: Google’s Wing drone delivery service starts mall-to-homes direct service

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Jonathan Bass: We’re not gonna replace the majority of ground delivery — that’s not our intention. We want to offset the quick trips with small items that we can perform more efficiently.

This is about 50 times more efficient than a gas powered vehicle. Probably 10 times more efficient than an electric car. 

John Koetsier: Do you want sushi by drone? Now you can get it, especially if you live in Queensland, Australia. Drone delivery may seem very Ready Player One, it’s sci-fi, it’s rumored, it’s promised, but maybe not actually quite real. Well, that’s not actually true. Manna is doing it in Ireland. Google’s making it happen in a few locations around the world … but particularly in Australia, where Wing, an Alphabet company, has just hit a very significant new milestone.

Today we’re chatting with Jonathan Bass, Wing’s head of marketing and communications. Welcome, Jonathan!

Jonathan Bass: Thanks for having me. 

John Koetsier: Hey, super happy to have you here. Now you’ve been delivering for two years. I’ve written about that before. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a new milestone … what’s the new news? 

done delivery from mall roofs

Jonathan Bass: Right. Well, we’ve actually been delivering for four or five years, I’d say. We started with some trials in 2017/2018. The two years is an ongoing service. So we launched a number of ongoing services in 2019, so that’s what the two years means, but we’ve been delivering quite a bit beyond that.

The news today is the first rooftop delivery service. So we’ve co-located at a shopping mall in Australia — Grand Plaza, it’s a Vicinity shopping mall — and we’re delivering off the roof. So it’s real estate that’s not being used for anything else, and we’ve used it to stage a delivery service for a number of the merchants in the mall.

John Koetsier: What’s the significance of that? What does that mean? And how’s that differ from what you were doing previously? 

Jonathan Bass: It moves us a little bit closer to the merchants, it allows them to essentially extend their retail environment out into the community. That’s been especially important and valuable during the pandemic. Logan, the city in Australia where this mall is located, has experienced some lockdowns recently, pandemic-related lockdowns. So it keeps a connection between the local business and the community even when the community can’t necessarily come into the store. 

John Koetsier: And I’m guessing previously you had products sent to maybe a distribution center or something like that and droned out from there, and now you’re basically right where the retailer is — is that correct? 

Jonathan Bass: Yes. We’re still doing that. Most of our facilities we have, we either prepare food onsite or we have inventory on site, and when the order comes in we distribute it from their Wing site. This one we’re co-locating at the shopping mall next to the merchants. 

John Koetsier: How long does it take? Like, if somebody orders something, they order sushi — I know that’s one of the things you’re offering — how long does it take from pressing ‘send it now’ to it arriving at my house? 

Jonathan Bass: It typically takes 10 or 15 minutes from order to delivery.

Our record is two minutes and 47 seconds, I think.

And so it depends on the product. If it’s a meal and it has to be prepared first before it’s delivered, it takes obviously a little bit longer. The flight times are typically one or two minutes. So, what’s powerful about that is it generally arrives very close to the state that it was delivered, so very fresh. Hot, if it’s coffee. Still frozen, if it’s ice cream. Fresh, if it’s a salad or sushi. So we tend to be really appealing to merchants who care about quality. 

John Koetsier: Your drones are not slow, right? I mean, 110 kilometers an hour. That’s what, 65 miles an hour?

Jonathan Bass: Around 70 miles per hour, yeah, 65-70 miles per hour … is the top speed.

the wing delivery drone

John Koetsier: What’s the process? Clearly I’m not going to amazon.au or .com or whatever. What’s the process and where do I order? How does the order come through? How does a drone get dispatched? 

Jonathan Bass: So you download an app, either Android or iOS app. You pull up the menu essentially on the app, so that the available merchants, you select the item you want, then a map will pop up. You select a location — usually your front yard, your backyard, maybe your driveway — and then you order.

And we take care of the rest, so the order’s fulfilled on our end. The drone takes off, it navigates to precisely the location that you selected. It drops the package attached to a tether, it does a little shimmy and releases the package … and that’s it.

And actually we’re working with TerryWhite, which is a chemist, a pharmacy in Australia, and they’re doing over the counter medication, and the users have especially liked that they know the minute it’s arriving. So we give them an ETA and they can go about their business in their home. And especially if it’s something, like if it’s a medication, they might not want it sitting out for more than 15-30 seconds. And so they know exactly the minute it’s going to arrive and they can just go outside exactly when they can expect to pick it up.

Sometimes we’ll update the ETA when the drone takes off, because the preparation can vary. But in any case, they know exactly when it’s going to arrive. 

 John Koetsier: Is this almost like an Uber where I can see my Uber coming on the map and coming along on the streets?

Jonathan Bass: Yes, it is very much like that. It is very much like that, except it arrives a lot faster. 

John Koetsier: Yes, exactly. 

Jonathan Bass: No lights, no traffic. None of that stuff. 

John Koetsier: Nice, nice. I want to understand what this feels like to a customer. I want to experience it. I want drone delivery right here, right now, and I want to know what that feels like. What are your customers telling you? 

Jonathan Bass: So, the customers love it. You know, I think the folks that we talked to that haven’t experienced yet express a lot of the same sentiment, ‘ When are you coming to my town?’ but they generally enjoy it. I think they wish that we had more items to offer. I think they wish that we were in more places. But the ones that have been able to experience it — and we’re doing thousands of deliveries a week in Canberra and Logan in Australia — they say they’ve come to rely on the service.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. What about retailers? How are they feeling? 

Jonathan Bass: Retailers like it. I think it’s a new conversation that they can have with their customers. It gives them a reason to contact them.

It’s been really especially helpful in the pandemic, and even after the pandemic, I think a lot of retailers have experienced that people don’t come into the stores quite as often. So it’s a way for them to connect to their customers in really what’s kind of a new retail environment. 

John Koetsier: What can you deliver? How big is the drone? What’s its carrying capacity? 

Jonathan Bass: The drone weighs around 10 pounds. It’s mostly made of foam and plastic. And the package, we can typically carry up to about three pounds.

John Koetsier: Okay, interesting. So you’re not shipping a sofa, you’re not shipping something of significant size or weight, but a meal, absolutely. Maybe you order two or three drones if you have too many meals, too many people over or something like that. Is it noisy in the environment?

Do people complain about drones whizzing around their city or is that pretty normal to them now?

Jonathan Bass: It was when we first started. When we first rolled out, in our first suburban trial in 2018, we got a lot of feedback about the noise. And we redesigned the propellers, made a number of modifications to the aircraft and made it much quieter, lower pitch, which was almost as important as the kind of the decibel level itself. So it sounds more like an attic fan or an air conditioning fan, like a noise that you would expect to hear, and less like a traditional drone with a higher pitch sound. And then we reduced the decibel level, which was also important, by about 30-40%.

And so we’ve gotten very little feedback since then. People really appreciated that change. So that’s been really positive for us and that really has been what’s allowed us to expand a lot in the Australian communities. 

John Koetsier: How have you managed to do this successfully? I mean, you’re in three major locations. You’re in the States as well, in one particular city. It seems to be working quite well. You’ve hit some recent milestones, not just delivering from the mall and from the store, but also in terms of number of deliveries that you’ve achieved on a weekly basis, monthly basis, and total.

We see that Amazon, you’d think, Amazon announced this first and Amazon is a retailer … Amazon has every incentive to make this work, and yet they’ve kind of flailed. They haven’t really been successful. What’s the difference?

Jonathan Bass: I think they’ll figure it out eventually. I have faith that they will, and really, they pre-announced it. They announced it before, when everyone was just sort of starting to work on the project.

But there are no shortcuts — you’ve got to walk before you can jog, before you can run.

And we started very early, I guess 2013/2014, testing. Our first, we did a rural trial, I’d say in 2017. And then a more suburban trial in 2018, we did a lot of test flights in those locations. We did test flights in Alaska before we went to Finland and then up in northern Finland near the Arctic Circle to make sure that we could fly in cold weather.

We have an R&D facility where we simulated rooftop delivery before we did this launch. So there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, there are no shortcuts to launching a service like this. But then as you get more experience operationally, it becomes easier and easier to expand. The regulators get more comfortable with what you’re doing when you’re doing thousands of deliveries a day with no incidents and the community really likes it. Your permissions to grow tend to continue and increase. So there are really no shortcuts, you just have to go out and start offering the service, incorporate your learnings, and go from there.

John Koetsier: I had no idea that you started way back then, 2013. That is amazing. That’s impressive. That’s a long-term project. You’re talking basically a decade probably before you’re in full scalability and growth mode — and we’ll get into that. I want to talk about the States. You’ve got a city that you’re up and running in.

When can Americans in Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, all these other places, Miami, expect to be able to get drone delivery? 

Jonathan Bass: That’s probably our next conversation. So we’re not quite ready to announce. We do have plans to expand in the United States that we’re not quite ready to announce, but I do look forward to having that conversation with you before too much longer.

John Koetsier: It is complex, right? I mean, there’s a lot of regulatory stuff. There’s permissions and all that stuff to be done. And then, of course, there’s boots on the ground. What’s that look like? Where’s it coming from? Where’s it going? Where’s your drone servicing station, your refueling or recharging station, all that stuff. So I look forward to that next conversation.

Maybe we’ll end here: project out a little bit for me, maybe five years in the future maybe, I don’t know, however long you want, but how big can this get? How big a percentage of our economy, or maybe percentage of the things that I want shipped to my house, how significant can this get? 

Jonathan Bass: Well, it’s significant in the sense that delivery and transportation are so massive. So, you know, we can carry three pounds, so we’re not going to replace ground delivery. We’re not going to replace the majority of ground delivery — that’s not our intention.

We want to offset the quick trips with small items that we can perform more efficiently.

This is about 50 times — our vehicles are 50 times more efficient than a gas powered vehicle. Probably 10 times more efficient than an electric car. So it’s a highly sort of energy-efficient way to do delivery.

But you’re right, we can’t deliver a couch. We’re not going to deliver anything over three pounds, four pounds. So, yeah, but there are a surprising number of deliveries that occur over a five/six mile range — which is roughly our range — of very small items, you know, replacing trips to pick things up from the store, which are massively inefficient and unsafe. So I think the potential is vast, but I wouldn’t call it a disruptive technology. I think it will augment ground delivery and be more constructive and additive than disruptive. 

John Koetsier: I really like it. I look forward to the day … I mean, Wednesday, tomorrow, is Wendy’s Wednesday for me, and classic single with cheese and a medium chocolate frosty, that’s my order, and I look forward to being able to get that from a drone. So, anyways, thank you for your time, Jonathan. 

Jonathan Bass: Thanks so much for your time, John.

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