“Unfortunately, I can’t talk about that,” said Alexa Dennett, Marketing & Communications Leader for Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery subsidiary, speaking politely but firmly. While the stonewalling was delivered in a friendly, even mildly apologetic, manner, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be any wiggle room. Wing wasn’t talking. At least, not about that. Not yet.
The refusals punctuated our conversation at multiple points. Is Wing profitable for Alphabet? “Unfortunately, I’m not able to talk about our financials.” How does Alphabet view success for Wing? “Obviously, I can’t talk to the specific internal metrics.” How big is the team? “We’re adequately staffed to meet our ambitious growth targets. I’ll keep it at that.”
Anyone who has ever interacted with the comms teams at a big team company is likely familiar with this process. It’s the journalistic equivalent of the bouncer outside an exclusive nightclub: Lifting the braided rope barrier to allow some entrants through, insisting that others leave the premises at their earliest possible convenience.
But this isn’t a story about the secrecy of Wing – which, truth be told, was willing to divulge plenty of information to We. Instead, it’s representative of something that’s actually pretty impressive: That without having to bare its soul with never-ending publicity and discussion about what it’s doing, Alphabet Wing has, over the past decade, quietly built up a drone delivery business that’s a lot further along than you likely realize.
And more people than ever are about to witness the kind of inroads it’s made. If they haven’t already.
Launching in Dallas-Fort Worth
Imagine a long-term dream in which drones are capable of delivering everything from groceries to pharmacy items. Picture a world in which the drones in one single town make multiple deliveries every single minute of the day. In a test market in Australia, that’s already happening.
Now, from today, Wing’s drone delivery service is live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area in Texas. This makes it the largest metro in the world, and the first in the United States, with access to on-demand drone delivery — available initially to thousands of suburban homes in the fast-growing city of Frisco and the town of Little Elm.
“We’re working with Walgreens to deliver health and wellness products using drones staged in one of their store parking lots,” Wing states in a press release. “This will be America’s most scalable drone delivery operation to date, as Walgreens team members will process their own orders and load packages onto drones themselves – while Wing oversees the delivery from a remote location … We’re also announcing new partnerships in DFW, as we’ll be delivering ice cream from Blue Bell Creameries, prescription pet medications from Easyvet, and first aid kits from Texas Health.”
Orders for deliveries via Wing drones are placed using the company’s mobile app. These deliveries are then transported directly to home addresses with no delivery charge. The drones themselves do not need to land to deliver their cargo. Instead, they descend to a hovering delivery height of around 23 feet off the ground, then lower a tether with the package. The customer doesn’t need to unclip or in any other way assist with delivery. After drop-off is made, the drone then returns to cruising height and heads back to the depot.
Wing hopes that, with its Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex demonstrator, it will lay out a vision of drone deliveries in the United States that could soon become a commonplace occurrence. It’s a vision of a seamless future for deliveries that may replace delivery vans for many everyday goods. What’s more, it’s a future that, for a time, seemed like it would belong to another tech giant altogether.
Bringing drone deliveries to the masses
For many people, the concept of drone deliveries is still linked most closely with Amazon. In 2013, then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed off a demonstration of what he termed Amazon Prime Air in an interview for 60 Minutes. The goal, Bezos said, was half-half hour delivery of objects weighing up to 5 pounds, which covered around 86% of the objects Amazon delivered. While Bezos acknowledged that Prime Air was still “years away,” the fact that he was willing to show it off meant that, for many viewers, drone deliveries seemed like they were right around the corner.
But in the near-decade since then, Prime Air still remains frustratingly grounded. Outside of a few tests, updates haven’t exactly been frequent. In June 2019, during the company’s re:MARS keynote, it said that drone deliveries would start “within months,” but 33 months later, the word “months” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. According to a 2021 report by Wiredtrouble is afoot for Amazon’s drone business.
“It took us two-and-a-half years to make the first 100,000 deliveries. Now, in six months, we’ve made the next 100,000. We really believe we’re on a rapid and exponential growth trajectory.”
The article-opening quote by Wing marketing expert Alexa Dennett suggests that it’s too early to hail rival tech giant Alphabet as necessarily having cracked the profitable drone delivery business. However, it’s certainly made some impressive advances since Wing was created as part of Google’s experimental “moonshot factory” X in 2012.
In Australia, one of three countries (along with Finland and the U.S.) Wing is currently carrying out limited operations in, customers in Canberra and Logan are able to order up to 250 drone-deliverable items from one of the country’s biggest supermarket chains, Coles. As of last year, Wing has completed over 100,000 drone deliveries in Australia — with another 30,000 added in the first two months of 2022. Recently, it had its busiest week ever, with more than 1,000 deliveries in a single day — equivalent to one delivery every 25 seconds. Across all global markets, Wing has surpassed 200,000 all-time commercial deliveries. Those are some notable stats, soon to be bolstered by the U.S. rollout.
“It took us two-and-a-half years [since starting to make deliveries] to make the first 100,000 deliveries,” Dennett told We. “Now, in [just] six months, we’ve made the next 100,000. We really believe we’re on a rapid and exponential growth trajectory. With the broader tides of sentiment around environmentally sustainable transportation and the move toward same-day or even in just a handful of minutes delivery … we believe that there are some pretty significant tailwinds in our favor.”
The COVID bump
Alphabet’s concept for Wing was to find a new, environmentally friendly way of delivering items without the need for “big lumbering vehicles” (read: cars) that “spew out a ton of pollution and carbon emissions” carrying small items around. “The whole thought was that we’ve really reached capacity on roads, we’ve got traffic jams everywhere,” Dennett said. “Why don’t we use the skies?”
As with many right-place-at-the-right-time tech companies — from Zoom to Shopify — Wing did well during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was previously a novelty (items delivered by unmanned aerial vehicle) suddenly took on new importance in a world of lockdowns. “It’s a bit of a weird thing to say that a silver lining of COVID for us was the rapid adoption of our technology,” said Dennett. “But that absolutely was true with people being under ‘shelter in place’ orders in Australia and the United States. We had a number of our customers writing to us saying that we had helped them save a trip to the shops to get things they couldn’t [otherwise] get access to.”
“Even as countries have come out of lockdown, this momentum has continued because I think people have seen that drone delivery is incredibly convenient.”
However, she stresses that this isn’t just Alphabet’s win. In the locations where Wing operates a limited, almost beta version of its deliveries, it teamed with local businesses to help them deliver everything from girl scout cookies to books. The owner of Mockingbird Cafe in Christiansburg, Virginia, reported that drone delivery accounted for about 25% of its sales during the early days of the pandemic. But now that the world is (touch wood) returning to normal, the demand hasn’t ceased.
“Even as countries have come out of lockdown, this momentum has continued because I think people have seen that drone delivery is incredibly convenient,” Dennett said. “Whether your customers are more elderly and mobility impaired, or they’re families with young children who don’t want to have to bundle all the kids in the car to get the things they need, [beyond that COVID spike] we’ve seen a lot of people stay on the platform, which has been really exciting to us.”
Coming to America
Now Wing is set to expand its footprint with the launch of its first widely available commercial operation in a U.S. metropolitan area in the densely populated Dallas/Fort Worth region in Texas. As noted, it’s a demonstrator of drone delivery feasibility in the U.S. that could prove to the relevant decision-makers that this technology is ready for prime time.
But even if drone deliveries do take off (no pun intended) in America, will Alphabet necessarily be the company that reaps the rewards? The simple answer is that no one knows for sure. Multiple aspects will need to converge before a winner comes out of this market.
Unlike search, which Alphabet’s core product Google revolutionized in the late 1990s, there are scant successful drone delivery companies to look at to see what to do and what not to do. Google’s PageRank algorithm transformed the way that we find information online, but it certainly wasn’t the first mover (or the second or the third or…) in the search market. It just managed to do it better than everyone else. Drone deliveries are different.
While Alphabet is undoubtedly responsible for some of the most exciting innovations the tech world has seen, it’s also somewhat infamous for ditching projects along the way. The website Killedbygoogle.com painstakingly tracks the various products built (and then dropped) by the search leviathan. Then there are other real-world projects, from Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs’ plan to build a smart city in Canada to Loon LLC, Alphabet’s plan to provide internet access to rural and remote areas using high-altitude balloons. Neither of these is still an active concern.
As undoubtedly cool a demo it may be, is there a profitable business to be had in maintaining a fleet of drones to deliver smaller grocery orders to customers without charging an exorbitant (or any) delivery fee? Multiple ultra-fast, ground-based delivery services are already struggling — and they don’t have to worry about their vehicles being attacked by territorial ravens, as Wing briefly did in Australia.
Just getting started
Again, Wing’s not talking about its profits (or lack thereof) in this area or the internal key performance indicators that Alphabet uses to indicate success or failure. Dennett acknowledged that, “The technology is just getting started” and “It’s the beginning of its journey,” but said that “what we will say is we’ve seen usage and adoption metrics for the service that are incredibly promising for us in terms of building a scalable and profitable business.”
There are also issues beyond Alphabet’s control, such as the accompanying legislature needed to roll out this technology. Although the Dallas rollout suggests things are moving in the U.S., that’s a far cry from the kind of across-the-board approval that will be needed for launches in every state.
However, in the meantime, Wing continues to improve, building quieter drones, studying user responses to its technologies, and generally trying to stay at the forefront of the innovation curve. “It’s hard to say when our last [drone update] was because there are new bits and pieces that are being trialed at our R&D facilities every week to make sure that we’re bringing the best technology to market,” Dennett said.
There are likely to be plenty more twists and turns in the drone delivery game before a true marketplace leader is crowned. Still, betting against the mighty Alphabet would be a big mistake. Should it be able to deliver on its ambitious goals in this area, it’s got a better chance than many.
And if and when it does achieve those goals? You can be darn sure that it’ll be more than happy to talk about them.