Wing, the Alphabet-owned drone delivery company, is unveiling its new remote operations center where pilots can oversee multiple missions at once. Its latest facility is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, the same location where it does local deliveries for companies like Walgreens.
The Texas location makes it easy for operators to operate drone flights across time zones, specifically those in Virginia (the company’s first delivery location) and nearby Little Elm, Texas. Wing also has another center in California and plans to build more. On the edge caught up with Wing spokesman Jacob Demmitt and drone pilot Tom Hillier in a video call for a demonstration.
Operators like Hillier use multiple screens, some showing live feeds from “nests” – where Wing drones are parked on charging pads waiting for a payload. Screens above the cockpits show live video from multiple locations, including Texas, Virginia and even Australia. Having these slots on-site, such as in the Little Elm Walgreens parking lot, “allows partners to fulfill their own orders,” Demmitt said.
From this Walgreens, drones have an authorized delivery range of 4.5 miles (although it’s technically capable of about six miles). The radius includes about 50,000 homes that are eligible to order through the Wing app. However, these residents still cannot order prescriptions, only over-the-counter and over-the-counter products.
Once an order comes in, trained Walgreens employees attach orders to the drone and it automatically calculates its route and autonomously takes off and delivers the package. Hillier then shows us Wing’s OpenSky software, which helps monitor flights. Pilots watch for bad weather so they can cancel deliveries that may be affected. There is no joystick for pilots to manually control the drones remotely.
Wing drone remote viewing is like viewing a Google Maps overview
Essentially, remote monitoring of Wing drones is like looking at a Google Maps overview with GPS location points on the screen plus some telemetry data such as speed and altitude. Although 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 any problems before, during, or after the mission, pilots contact ground support, which can do things like nudge a drone that hasn’t started charging.
Demmitt says the drones charge wirelessly on the pads, run self-diagnostics from there and send the information back to the remote operations center. On a full charge, they are capable of flying 12 miles round trip, and that’s with a maximum payload of about three pounds. Wing is working on creating larger drones with higher capacity.
Recharging a drone takes “a few minutes” after a short trip, according to Demmitt. He stressed that there are about 20 of the airmen on rotation at any given time, and he thinks it’s unlikely that any of them will reach a dead battery. Texas operations are conducted five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wing has been most successful in Australia, where 1,000 deliveries are now made a day, with coffee being the number one transport there. In the US, the company was the first to receive a Part 135 air carrier certificate, which allows operations beyond direct line of sight and makes flying over people normal. It also works in Finland near Helsinki and soon in Ireland near Dublin. The company has surpassed 300,000 shipments, according to its website. That’s a good start for a relatively small operation as other companies like Amazon work to catch up.