Alphabet’s ‘Wing’ delivery drones are on their way to Europe

In July, Alphabet’s “Wing” drone delivery project departed X, the company’s research and development facility, to become a business in its own right.

Originally developed by Google (Alphabet’s main subsidiary), Wing’s six years of development have been arduous, to say the least, though there have been some successes — notably its trial delivery program in Australia where regulations governing such operations are more relaxed.

Next, the team is heading to Helsinki, Finland, where it plans to launch a drone delivery service in 2019. It will be Wing’s first such effort in a European country.

“Finns are internationally renowned for being early adopters of new technologies, and we’re looking forward to working with the community and local businesses to find the best way to implement our services in the Helsinki area,” the company said this week in a post on its website.

One of the reasons for taking its technology to Finland is the chance to test it in the nation’s harsh winter weather, as such extreme conditions don’t exist at its other testing site in Australia. “We’re pretty confident that if our drones can deliver here, they can deliver anywhere,” Wing said.

Deliveries in the country’s capital will see its drones fly distances of up to 6.2 miles (10 km). Wing’s drone has gone through various redesigns over the years, and it continues to work on a range of prototypes. The machine destined for Helsinki features fixed wings, as well as rotors, and weighs about 5 kilos; for comparison, DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro quadcopter tips the scales at about 1.4 kg. It can comfortably carry packages of up to 1.5 kg, and fly up to 12.4 miles (20 km) on a single charge.

Keen to promote the benefits of drone delivery, Wing described its system as “safer, faster, and more environmentally friendly than ground delivery,” adding that it has the potential to “radically improve our quality of life.”

The company’s operation in south-eastern Australia over the last 18 months allowed it to test the customer experience of drone delivery. Wing has made thousands of drone flights there after partnering with local firms to deliver not only food and drink, but also medicine and household items.

Precisely what Wing will be delivering to the folks of Finland is yet to be determined. Indeed, the company is keen to learn from Finns about how they would like to use its drone delivery service, with a form on its website asking: “What would you like delivered by Wing to your door in less than 10 minutes?”

Slow progress

When Amazon boss Jeff Bezos unveiled the very first Prime Air delivery drone back in December 2013, he said it would take “four or five years” for its flying machine to become an integral part of its delivery operation. But it still hasn’t happened.

The technology has certainly made huge advancements in that time, but safety concerns mean regulators are still reluctant to permit the necessary freedoms for such services to operate in a meaningful way. A reliable air traffic control system for drones is considered by many as the best path to acceptance, but that could be years away — especially when it comes to deliveries in urban areas.

But those involved in developing drone technology are undeterred. Besides Wing’s ongoing work, Amazon is still developing its sky-based delivery platform, and a slew of other companies around the world are also continuing to work on their own systems for a wide range of uses.

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