Aviation Week & Space Technology
Fri, 2018-04-13 04:10
In a suburb of Canberra, in Australia’s Capital Territory, Project Wing’s drone delivery system is
facing its toughest test yet. The project team wants to find out how well unmanned aircraft systems
(UAS) will compete with other modes of home delivery.
That testing has not only moved from the countryside into the suburbs but is gathering real-world
data on the value to users is a sign of the maturity of Project Wing’s delivery system. And its drones
are not the only ones serving customers, with pilot projects underway in several countries and
coming to the U.S.
Amazon continues testing in the countryside in Cambridge, England, but publicly is talking more
about its work on the UAS traffic management (UTM) system required to enable drones of all stripes
to make safe and efficient use of low-altitude airspace.
Project Wing is also developing UTM and using its system in Australia. In the U.S., it is one of the
first five UAS service suppliers, or USS, selected by the FAA to provide automated approval of
requests to fly drones in controlled airspace near airports using the Low-Altitude Authorization and
Notification Capability, viewed as the first piece of UTM.
Part of the Alphabet X advanced research arm of Google’s parent company, Project Wing conducted
its first delivery demonstration in Australia in 2014 to a farm in the Queensland Outback. It returned
in October 2017 to begin regular drone deliveries to a semirural community outside Canberra.
“From October to March, we were able to expand our operations from line-of-sight to extended-line of-sight, with a spotter watching the airspace all the way, to true beyond-visual-line-of-sight
[BVLOS],” says James Ryan Burgess, project co-lead. “We were flying over people, and all the routes
were on demand.”
The trial was conducted with Mexican food chain Guzman y Gomez and pharmacy chain Chemist
Warehouse; customers used a smartphone app to order items for delivery. “We were close to 900
customer flights and, of the 300-odd homes, we had 100 people try it, and 89 of those became repeat customers,” he says. “It was validation for us that what we are creating really does provide value.”
Suburban testing will increase the number of homes to be served and decrease the size of yards into
which deliveries are made. “Does the technology fit in those environments? Can we navigate
precisely enough into very small back or front yards versus the large lots in a rural area? We also
have to make sure our systems for detecting and avoiding obstacles, power lines, trees, etc., all work
properly,” he says.
“But also, the closer in we get, the more competition of value we are up against,” Burgess says. “In a
rural community, there may be no way to get delivery; you’re too far from town. But in a suburban
area, there might be 10 different ways to get delivery, so we want to make sure that people still see
value in a drone system when they have alternatives. That will hold us to higher standards.”
The system works like this. A customer orders an item from the merchant, who scans a bar code that
queries the UTM system and asks it to plan a flight and send a vehicle. The drone launches from
Project Wing’s base and flies to the merchant, hovers and lowers a hook to which the custom package is attached. It winches the package up, locks it to the airframe and flies off. After delivery, it returns to base to be recharged, ready for the next flight. The drone can fly up to 10 km (6 mi.) each way at 120-125 kph.
“If any of that goes wrong, if the hook doesn’t engage, or the locking pins, if the package is too heavy, the aircraft just delivers it back to the ground and says, ‘Sorry, merchant, I can’t take this one.’ That way we’ve ensured we’re not flying with any at-risk package or loading,” says Burgess.
“At no time once the aircraft leaves our launch site is it lower than 5 m [16 ft.] from the ground,” he
says. This keeps it up and away from people, so that the merchant and recipient only interact with
the package. If someone grabs the winch line, the aircraft tries to pull away but, if it cannot shake
loose, it depowers the spool and leaves the line behind. “The worst case, someone’s left holding 5 m
of string, but there’s no safety issue. Our design choices assume the worst and make sure people are
safe,” he says.
Project Wing’s concept is to enable even small businesses to use drone delivery. “It doesn’t take any
training or infrastructure. They just need a box, and we will fly to pick it up and they can be
competing in the realm of modern e-commerce for zero investment on their part,” Burgess says.
Around the world, drone delivery is moving toward reality, and several of the operators involved
hope to bring their experience to the U.S. under the Trump administration’s UAS integration Pilot
Program (IPP), established to accelerate commercial drone use. The FAA will shortly select the first
five projects, led by state, local or tribal governments, and several proposals involve drone delivery.
In Reykjavik, the drone delivery trial begun in August 2017 by Israel’s Flytrex and Icelandic
e-commerce company Aha is set to expand. So far, one drone has been flying food 2.5 km across a
wide river that separates two parts of the city. This reduces a 25-min. van drive to a flight of less than 3.5 min. “We are now asking for permission for another dozen lines,” says Yariv Bash, Flytrex cofounder and CEO.
Describing Flytrex as a logistics company, Bash says it uses available industrial drones. In Reykjavik,
Aha operates them and pays a license fee per flight. The drones fly in segregated airspace. Aha calls
air traffic control (ATC) each day at the start and end of flights. If required, “ATC can immediately
contact the operator in the field, who will return the drone to base,” he says.
So far, the drone only has flown to a trained operator and landed. But deliveries to customers are to
begin shortly, with packages winched to the ground from a hover at 80 ft. Once permission is
granted, Aha will fly to “virtual points” around the city such as a street corner or backyard and lower
“We started with food because customers are used to fast delivery,” he says. The customer places an order and downloads an app to track the drone. On arrival, the drone lowers the package, and the customer approves or cancels the delivery. If no one is there, the drone will “time out” and fly back.
Flytrex has approval to fly over people and beyond visual line of sight, Bash says. Currently, one
drone flies back and forth across the river. “Once we have a few lines, we will fly a few drones
simultaneously,” he says. As sense-and-avoid technology is not yet mature enough, the drones will fly fixed routes.
In Switzerland, a hospital drone network established last fall in Lugano by Swiss Post and U.S.
start-up Matternet has made more than 350 deliveries. The pilot program is running 5-15
autonomous flights a day, carrying laboratory samples or urgently needed medication between two
Regular drone transport between the hospitals is planned to begin this summer, says Swiss Post. This
will use Matternet stations, interfaces that automate ground operations. Installed on the ground or a rooftop, the station guides Matternet’s M2 drone to a precision landing, locks it in place and
automatically swaps the battery and payload. The user scans a package into the station to send it or
scans a QR code to receive a delivery. An automated deconfliction system manages drone traffic over the station.
In Zurich, Matternet, Mercedes-Benz Vans and Swiss online marketplace Siroop launched a pilot
project to test automated van-and-drone delivery. This involved the first extensive BVLOS drone
operations in a major urban area using vans as landing platforms. Items were ordered online and
flown directly from the merchant to delivery vans waiting at predefined rendezvous points within the city.
In the three-week pilot in September 2017, the drones completed 100 deliveries of ground coffee to
two vans at four fixed stops, flying distances up to 17 km. Further trials are planned for this year.
In Singapore, Airbus Helicopters in February conducted the first demonstration flight of its Skyways
urban drone delivery system at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The purposed-designed
octocopter took off from its maintenance center and flew to a rooftop parcel station where a package was loaded by robot arm. The drone then took off, landed, and the package was automatically unloaded.
Trial service will begin later this year, the autonomous drones carrying 2-4-kg (4-9-lb.) payloads and
plying airspace corridors between parcel stations on the NUS campus in a project launched with the
Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and logistics partner SingPost.
Drones will launch and land autonomously as parcels enter the system, but they will be monitored
from an operations center. “We have system operators who are there to make sure everything is clean and clear, until we can really gain the confidence of all stakeholders that we can do this fully
autonomously,” says Leo Jeoh, design office head at Airbus Helicopters Southeast Asia.
In Africa, U.S. start-up Zipline in March fielded a major upgrade of the drone logistics system that has
been delivering blood to remote medical centers in Rwanda since October 2016. The upgrades reduce the time from receipt of an order to launch of a delivery flight to 1 min. from 10 min., the company says.
The redesigned fixed-wing drone cruises 21 kph faster, at 101 kph, and roundtrip range is 160 km
carrying 1.75 kg of cargo that is dropped by disposable parachute at its destination. To recover, the
drone catches a nylon cord strung between trusses and is lowered to the ground.
The upgrades increase the number of daily delivery flights each distribution center can make to 500,
from 50. Since beginning operations in Rwanda, Zipline has delivered more than 7,000 units of
blood on more than 4,000 flights. A second distribution center is being opened in Rwanda, and
operations in Tanzania will begin this year.
In Canada, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) is preparing to begin a pilot project with the remote Moose
Cree First Nation community in northern Ontario. Testing is complete, says CEO Tony Di Benedetto,
and drones will fly payloads weighing up to 10 lb. across the Moose River, distances up to 8 mi. DDC
hopes the pilot program, carrying mail, food, medicines and other goods, will lead to commercial
In March, DDC conducted test flights at Griffiss International Airport in New York, and the Toronto based start-up is setting up a U.S. operation. The company has conducted BVLOS test flights using its
Flyte mission management software and DroneSpot, a secure take off-and-landing platform that
provides local weather and aircraft awareness, weight and balance monitoring and other data for safe operations.
“We are looking for an operator that we can layer our technology into, a courier company that has the depots, routes and customers and is just lacking the vehicle. We can partner with them to offer
services via drone. It is the fastest way to scale up,” says Di Benedetto.
In the U.S., Flirtey is focusing on the delivery of urgently needed medical aid, starting with
automated external defibrillators, but potentially including medicines to treat allergy attacks and
drug overdoses. The company has been testing the delivery of defibrillators on the outskirts of Reno-
Sparks with Nevada’s Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority and the police and fire
All these companies are believed to have teamed with U.S. state and local governments to propose
drone delivery projects for the IPP. Matternet is part of two proposals, one to deliver blood by drone
to Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California, and another, with Zipline, to ferry blood and medicines
to hospitals and clinics in North Carolina.
“Our drone delivery system is like a virtual pneumatic tube, offering instant access to blood,
medicine or lab equipment to any facility within a hospital system. This can mean better quality of
care, and potentially millions of dollars in operational savings per year,” says Matternet CEO
Andreas Raptopoulos. At long last, drone delivery may be about to prove itself.