Over the past few years, Project Wing has conducted thousands of flights to get their drone delivery technology ready for everyday use. In early 2016, Project Wing successfully completed their first drone deliveries to members of the public in an open field at Virginia Tech University. This fall they have been testing in a rural community on the border of ACT and NSW in Australia and tackling an entirely different level of operational complexity: making deliveries directly to people's yards.
The testers — alpaca farmers, math professors, equestrians, and artists (not to mention a few curious kangaroos) — have been helping fine-tune how the drones move goods from where they're located to where they're needed. Two Australian merchants are joining the tests, as they're eager to understand how drone delivery could help them serve their customers better. Guzman y Gomez, a Mexican food chain, and Chemist Warehouse, a chain of pharmacies, will receive orders from our testers who've purchased items using the Project Wing app on their smartphones. Drones will be dispatched to pick up the order from the partners' loading sites and then transport and deliver the goods to testers at their residences.
Alleviating day-to-day inconvenience
Residents near the testing area on the outskirts of the ACT live an idyllic country lifestyle on 10-acre blocks of rolling land spotted with gum trees and horses. But they face a 40-minute round trip in the car for almost anything, whether it's a carton of milk, veggies for dinner, or a cup of coffee. The testers, including young families, busy professionals and retirees, had many suggestions for how our technology could address this fundamental inconvenience. They wanted fresh meals delivered at dinner time. Some who run small businesses at home wanted to be able to send customer orders from their doorstep. A few with farms wanted supplies to arrive at their paddocks, or spare parts delivered to the ailing vehicle on their property. Almost all said that they'd value having medicine delivered to their door, especially when they're unwell.
They also had ideas about delivery drones being used to transport drinking water, food, medical supplies, and mechanical parts to emergency service workers operating in rural areas or places cut off due to floods and fires. As part of upcoming tests, Project Wing will help the Australian Capital Territory Rural Fire Service assess how the technology could aid their efforts.
Identifying safe and convenient delivery locations
Last year at Virginia Tech, the first deliveries with members of the public were in an open field, not to a specific address or location. Now, with each delivery, a drone will encounter a new yard space with its own layout of trees, sheds, fences, and power lines. That means that in addition to learning what people want delivered, the team must also learn how to best deliver items to people.
The drones are able to deliver items almost anywhere — backyards, public parks, farmlands or even fire-breaks. But Project Wing needs to train their systems to reliably identify safe and convenient delivery locations. This is more complicated than it looks. The team have to incorporate customer preferences — e.g. many of our testers would like packages delivered to backyards so they're not visible from the road, or near kitchens so food items can be unpacked quickly. And the drones have to be ready to accommodate changing conditions at the delivery location. While the unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform allows a pre-planned flight route, the sensors on the aircraft are responsible for identifying obstacles that might appear during a flight or delivery, like a car parked in an unexpected spot, or outdoor furniture that's been moved. The more test deliveries that are done, exposing the sensors on the aircraft to new delivery locations, the smarter the aircraft's algorithms will one day become at picking a safe spot for deliveries.
Loading and delivering packages smoothly and quickly
To operate an effective drone delivery system, Project Wing must be able to pick up packages from anyone, in almost any location. This presents an interesting design challenge: the technology must be intuitive and easy to use, so packages can be loaded and received without any specialized infrastructure and by people without specialized experience.
Project Wings partners Guzman y Gomez and Chemist Warehouse will teach what to do to ensure that orders are channeled to their staff smoothly and that they can easily load goods onto the delivery drones. In the case of Guzman y Gomez, who is the first delivery partner for this trial, Project Wing will need to make sure their technology fits in smoothly into the kitchen operations, as their staff have to juggle many orders at once to ensure that every customer is served fresh, hot food in a timely fashion. The team want to learn how much notice to give them for a drone's arrival so that they can cook, pack, and load it in one well-timed workflow.
Through the partnership with Chemist Warehouse, Project Wing wants to ensure the system is able to support merchants with a wide variety of products. As part of this test, they're offering nearly 100 products across categories like vitamins, dental care, sun care, and over-the-counter medicines. By practicing how to pack items of very different shapes and sizes into a fixed-sized package, the team will learn how to optimize how many items they are able to deliver per flight.
The information gathered from both of these test partners will help build a system so that merchants of all kinds can focus on what they're good at — like making food or helping people feel healthier — rather than being distracted by complex delivery logistics.
Source and top image: Project Wing