You probably wouldn’t use a sedan to haul a ton of gravel, nor would you hire a flatbed truck to haul a single TV.
Essentially, the transportation industry has solved the problem of vehicle-to-cargo matching for traditional modes like shipping and trucking. But emerging modes, like drone delivery, are still solving the problems.
Wing, the drone delivery arm of Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL), has been at the drawing board. The company on Thursday unveiled the Aircraft Library, a behind-the-scenes initiative that repurposed core components from its flagship Hummingbird aircraft to build new drone prototypes.
So far, Wing has revealed a more compact model and a bulkier model, with more prototypes in the works.
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Wing has been busy for the past few months. In March, it passed the milestone of 200,000 deliveries for its worldwide services in the United States, Australia and Finland. Then, the following month, it launched one of its biggest projects to date, a commercial service in the Texas suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. But that hasn’t stopped the company from exploring new avenues.
“While we’ve been flying this all over the world, we’ve also had a team focused on what’s next,” Wing CEO Adam Woodworth said in a promotional video.
According to Woodworth, delivery will always be multimodal – the way you deliver a fridge won’t be the same as a gallon of milk. Currently, Wing only uses the Hummingbird WB aircraft for commercial service. However, Woodworth knows that the company will soon have to diversify.
“The flight physics are very unforgiving,” he said. “To optimize the performance of an aircraft, to optimize the performance of an entire delivery system, it makes sense to build aircraft, to build vehicles that are a good match for what they are carrying.”
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To do this, Woodworth and his team are repurposing the basic components of the Hummingbird drone. These include the motors, battery, and computer that serve as the “brain” of the aircraft, as well as the materials used to construct the wings and hull.
“We can take these elements and put them together in new ways to solve different problems: carrying bigger boxes, carrying smaller boxes, flying farther,” Woodworth said.
The first prototype Wing unveiled, currently called Article 1, is a compact model that would be suitable for carrying a smaller load, such as a medicine bag from a pharmacy. The second prototype, Article 2, is built to support more weight than the Hummingbird. Woodworth expects it to be able to handle more than double the payload.
In the image above, Wing highlights the mismatch between the size of the load and the vehicle. The Hummingbird and newer prototypes are designed to carry payloads equal to around 25% of the aircraft’s mass – a car, on the other hand, typically carries less than 0.1% of its mass.
According to Woodworth, the main challenge for the smaller Article 1 was to reduce mass without hampering efficiency. For example, Wing engineers are working on a way to make the wings smaller but still able to support the drone. For the largest item 2, the biggest hurdle is figuring out how to ship the package.
Woodworth also hinted that more prototypes are yet to come. Specifically, he mentioned a drone for long-distance deliveries, as well as models designed to carry different types of packages, ranging from food to medicine. The hope is that Wing will use the aircraft library to get these new models off the ground quickly.
“When the need arises – whether it’s a new partner we’re working with who wants to carry a different set of goods [or] whether it’s a different use case that we’ve identified, we can go to that library, go to the shelf, pull one of those designs, and push it through the rest of the development process “, did he declare.
Having completed more than 250,000 deliveries with the Hummingbird to date, Wing believes it can use what it has learned about its flagship model to create an even larger ecosystem. Woodworth envisions aircraft of all shapes and sizes working together to match the right vehicle to the right product, rather than a single drone taking over.
“The future of drone delivery is really about the system as a whole,” he said. “No single element can solve all these problems at once. You will need all the parts working together. You will probably need several different types of aircraft to solve different types of delivery problems. You’re really going to have to put all of these pieces together holistically to make drone delivery a reality.
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