Drone delivery company Wing recently celebrated 100,000 deliveries to much media fanfare. Australia is at the forefront of Wing’s plans, with the company’s two largest test sites underway in Canberra and Logan, Queensland.
The Wing tells a simple story of barista coffee spilled and roasted chock on your driveway at a moment’s notice. Short on Vegemite for the kids’ breaky? Hop on the app, order, and a drone will lower a new jar to your door before the toast cools down. All quick, contactless and COVID-safe.
But the real story is far more complex. Drone deliveries on a large scale will change the skies, changing expectations of faster deliveries and hiding the labor that makes this possible.
Owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Wing has vast resources. New drone regulations are already being written, and Wing is positioning itself as the backbone of a new air infrastructure.
how wing works
Wing works as a multiple app delivery platform. After signing up, customers use a smartphone app to place their orders. Orders are then packed at local base stations and delivered to their destinations by Wing’s drones. Upon arrival, the package is unloaded to customers by winch, automatically detached from the drone before returning to the base station.
Unlike hobby drones that you might see over parks and beaches, Wing’s delivery drones can operate out of sight of the operator. The flight is completely autonomous, with a single pilot monitoring multiple flights at once and being able to take off or land if necessary.
How it will increase in volume and frequency is not clear. So far, the test sites in Canberra and Logan have provided clear and simple airspace and a flat, regular urban environment.
For the customers, it all promises a fast, seamless and contactless experience.
Deloitte’s economic modeling on the drone industry in Australia notes that drones enable further automation of work. But behind every promise of “autonomous” or “automated” technology are hidden human workers.
Whose labor does it save?
One of Wing’s key promises is incredibly fast delivery on demand. The average delivery time of the Wing is about 10 minutes. Their fastest time recorded – from ordering to product in hand – is 2 minutes 47 seconds.
This is a remarkable acceleration in speed and expected delivery. Ordinary mail can take days or weeks, but thanks to the “Amazon effect,” private delivery services have already shifted expectations from the next day to the same day and now an hour or two.
While Wing’s drones are autonomous, the service still relies on human labor. Pilots monitor the flight path, Packers parcel products, and maintenance staff take care of hardware and software. All these workers have to perform to meet the delivery time of 10 minutes.
Amazon warehouse and food delivery apps have shown us that such punitive deadlines can be dangerous for workers’ safety and disastrous for morale. For precariously employed or gig economy workers, not meeting targets can mean immediate termination.
Read more: ‘They track our every move’: why were the cards stacked against a union at Amazon?
And the results of a 10-minute delivery can spread beyond the wing. If consumer expectations change, rival delivery companies (that are not using automated drones) will feel pressured to keep pace.
Deloitte modeling from 2020 shows that the cost of drone delivery could be less than half the current rate of e-bike delivery. In the Canberra trial, some products are delivered for at least the same in-store prices. How those distribution costs will be distributed among Wing, businesses, workers, and customers once the pilot program ends, though, is unclear – but if the likes of UberEats are anything to go by, it will do well for businesses and businesses in particular. Can be a delivery worker. who bear the most expenses.
Drone delivery may also have hidden environmental costs. Keeping cars and trucks off the road can cut energy consumption, but mining lithium for batteries and supplying energy for data centers could reduce or eliminate those benefits.
Getting sandwiches via drone could mean more packaging and waste as well as a potential risk to birds and habitats from heavy air traffic.
But a big question for the public is about the skies above our heads. Do we want to live under a cloud of drones?
Currently, most of the time people are free to enjoy the skies above their homes and communities. Kids can fly kites and enthusiasts can fly their own drones. Drone delivery runs the risk of privatizing a new layer of that common space and handing it over to Alphabet and others.
Building a legal and technical architecture to control the skies
To privatize a new part of the sky, Australia’s drone regulations would have to change. Current regulations are highly restrictive, built primarily from a patchwork of international, federal and state laws developed for airplanes.
Except for hobbyists with constant vision, operating in limited times and locations, each drone use requires explicit permission from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
New business applications are pushing this system past the breaking point. They are often required to operate beyond line of sight, near populated areas, in a wide range of conditions, and without constant pilot supervision.
Buoyed by Deloitte’s economic modeling that the drone industry could be worth about $15 billion by 2040 (almost $600 million with e-commerce and delivery), the Australian government is pushing to modernize drone regulation. This means re-evaluating regulations related to environmental impacts, noise, safety, insurance, safety and privacy.
Various companies and business models will benefit from the resulting changes. For example, commercial applications such as distribution would benefit from more flexible noise standards. This means that the bigger question is how different stakeholders are influencing the development of these new laws.
Capturing standards for unmanned traffic management
Along with the new regulations, new digital infrastructure is being developed to manage increasingly congested and “automated” skyways.
Wing is heavily involved, providing a flight planning and safety app for drone operators, a system for remote drone identification, and an “unmanned traffic management” service.
Owning a comprehensive traffic management system is clearly part of a long-term business strategy. As Google has shown with its Android operating system, building infrastructure (even if it’s open source) can create a real business advantage.
Read more: The age of drones has arrived sooner than the laws that govern them
Wing’s vision fits well with the Australian Government’s desire for a market-based strategy to develop and implement its first unmanned traffic management system over the next 5 years. Testing programs in Canberra and Logan will help the company develop a more comprehensive Skyway traffic platform that will control airspace security, communications standards, data management and everything else needed to sustain autonomous air commerce.
Policy makers are aware that commercial development of communications infrastructure poses competition risks. However, they may not have the tools and expertise to implement equitable and fair access to SkyWay infrastructure.
And at present, the basic question is whether we want The crowded drone delivery in our skies is in full swing.
As we’ve seen with the likes of Uber and Airbnb, once the tech companies are reined in, they’re already up and running. With Australia modernizing its aviation laws, the Wing is well positioned to defend its agenda and position itself as essential to the future development of the law.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also helping companies like Wing to accelerate their agenda, as they can promise less congestion, less consumer mobility and less social interaction.
Read more: Coles and Woolworths moving to robotic warehouse and on-demand labor as home deliveries increase
While city skies may be a distant sight with delivery drones, there is work being done at the ground level right now. Communities, businesses and workers should be a big part of the process of deciding whether they want that future.
Drone delivery of sushi for lunch may seem like a neat idea, but the actual price may have little to do with what your card charges.