Eleven thousand kilometres from Google’s Californian HQ, the tech giant is quietly revolutionising the way we eat, drink and shop with drones in the Sunshine State. Adam Thorn hears the buzz from the key players at the forefront of aviation’s next big thing.
Logan, in southeast Queensland, is what you could call a Goldilocks town. Not too big and not too small.
Actually, it’s a city, and one of the youngest and most rapidly expanding in Australia, with its population of 330,000 residents set to leap by 75 per cent in the next 20 years. The growth, says the mayor, has been astounding, with newcomers embracing a rural life that’s only a short commute to Brisbane and the Gold Coast. But it’s also not Sydney or Melbourne or New York or London. So, if you fancy an almond macchiato on a Saturday afternoon at home, there likely isn’t a barista at the end of your street ready to serve you one. It’s for precisely this reason that Google has picked Logan to be the global epicentre of its plans to conquer the drone delivery business.
Now, if you want that coffee, all you have to do is open the Google Wing app, browse the product list and pick your blend. Within seconds, your order will be pinged to an iPad stored behind the counter at Extraction Artisan Coffee, based in Google’s Crestmead delivery centre. There, one of its baristas will make your drink, pack it into a special aerodynamic box designed to stop spillage, and walk it to a launchpad. The drone that’s summoned doesn’t actually touch the ground but instead hovers about seven metres in the air, lowering a cable that a Google employee uses to attach the package. The box gets drawn up, and two metal pins swing around to lock it in place before the craft rises vertically to its cruising height of 45 metres.
It then automatically plans a safe trip, considering the weather and known obstacles, before shooting off to its destination. On arrival, it performs the same process as earlier in reverse, lowering the cable and automatically releasing the package before buzzing off back to base to recharge its batteries. No human contact required. The best bit? The coffee will arrive piping hot because it’ll only have flown for a couple of minutes, owing to the drone’s 110kph top speed and ability to travel point-to-point.
“One day, we did a test,” says Alex Milosevic, Extraction’s founder. “There were a couple of coffees going to a house four kilometres away in a straight line, so I looked on Google Maps, and it said it would take eight minutes to drive there. It probably took us about three minutes to make the coffee and package it. The drone returned – and I timed it – in under two minutes, which involved flying to its destination, delivering the product, and then returning to base.” In fact, Google says its record from app submission to delivery is just 2 minutes and 47 seconds.
The reason it’s so quick is due to the drones’ unique hybrid design, which incorporates 12 propellers for vertical lift-off and a 1m fixed-wing to fly smoothly to its destination. It’s light, too, weighing 400 times less than the average car, owing to its foam-covered fuselage and frangible components. And, of course, being battery powered, it’s far cheaper than paying for a man and his petrol to drive to a destination. Google is currently offering its full service for free. Still, it’s hard to imagine the cost being sizable when it subsequently shifts to a more commercial model.
Just think about that for a minute: drones have the potential to wipe out the business model of Uber East, Deliveroo and Menulog almost overnight. So while, in the US, the drone delivery industry is estimated to grow from $680 million in 2020 to $54 billion by 2030, there’s no reason it can’t gobble up the $272 billion food delivery market, too. No wonder Michael McCormack, when still Deputy Prime Minister, predicted emerging aviation technologies will create at least 5,000 jobs and generate $15 billion in GDP over the next 20 years in Australia – a third of that in disconnected regional areas.
“What’s nice about a purchase like coffee is that the person may not have bought it otherwise,” says Jesse Suskin, Google Wing’s head of government relations and one of the tech giant’s key global figures overseeing the project here in Australia. “So the merchant can have an extra sale.” And the more they do it, the more they learn, he says. “Sometimes, our baristas might just warm the milk half a degree warmer on a cold day, knowing it’s going up in the air.
“We’ve now been successfully and happily delivering coffee for local baristas for years.”
Wing started life in 2012 as one of the first projects at the tech giant’s super-secretive research lab, Google X, alongside its augmented reality eyeglasses and self-driving cars.
At first, the plan was to use the devices to help rush defibrillators to patients in emergencies, but it didn’t take long for the designers to realise its broader possibilities. And so, in 2018, the company began launching commercial trials in Bonython, in Canberra’s south. Australia, incidentally, became the project’s home because our regulator, CASA, was willing to grant the kind of exemptions tutted away by its equivalent in the US, the FAA. The project was greenlit for broader use in the ACT’s capital in April the following year before Logan followed suit months later. Today, in Logan alone, drones deliver everything from cakes to sandwiches, hammers and toothpaste to more than a dozen suburbs. They’ll even fly a flat white to your office, as well as regular residential addresses.
“Logan is not Brisbane, but it has hundreds of thousands of people living there,” explains Suskin. “And so we solve for something because that wait in a car to buy a small item is real.” It’s the same story in the ACT, where many people don’t live within walking distance of a local store to pick up a litre of milk. “If you’re cooking and you run out of butter, well, you don’t want to turn the oven off and drive. We solve for that. Plus, we like to be close to our regulators so they can see what we’re doing.”
Since Canberra’s launch in 2019, Wing has trialled deliveries in Helsinki, Finland, and Virginia in the US, but Australia remains its most extensive operation globally. “We’re doing more here in terms of both deliveries and general growth than anywhere else,” Suskin enthuses. “It’s an exciting time to be working at a drone delivery company in Australia, where it’s all happening.”
However, what surprised Suskin is how diverse Wing’s customers have become and far beyond the more smartphone-savvy millennials the business initially envisaged as its core audience. “Some of our best customers are retired or older. They love surprising the kids that live next door by ordering something. It’s the best part of their day.” Office workers who don’t drive by a coffee shop on their way to work feature heavily, and working parents who need something quickly while juggling looking after the kids.
Yet, the key to its evolution has been working closely with local businesses, such as Extraction Artisan Coffee. Milosevic opened his main outlet in 2016, and it’s since grown to employ a staff of 20. He was pointed in the direction of Wing by the City Council, who were aware of his passion for innovation and sustainability. “We want to be at the forefront of where the industry is going for us,” he says. He now has a satellite coffee station at Google’s Logan HQ and averages around 30 to 40 drone deliveries a day. “It’s becoming more and more consistent to the point where the facility now is working extremely well. There’s a lot of drones flying a lot of the time, which is great.”
Google was also savvy enough to realise that the key to growth was listening to its partner businesses tell them what they should be doing next. Much to Suskin’s amusement, one store said they should consider adding whole roast chickens to their menu. “And the next thing you know, we’re flying dozens and dozens of roasted chickens every day across the city! I mean, it makes sense now I hear it, but it wouldn’t have been the first thing that would have crossed my mind three years ago. It’s taken off, no pun intended.”
“Now, if you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether a commercial drone operator would make 10,000 deliveries over a couple of months, it would have been something that we would have hoped for,” said Simon Moore. “Still, we wouldn’t have been able to have that level of ambition. But things have changed quite dramatically. Things are now getting to a point where technology has matured. It’s there.”
Moore was one of the key figures formulating the Australian government’s drone policy in his former role as assistant secretary of aviation safety and future technology. When I spoke to him last year, he’d just finished releasing the National Emerging Aviation Technologies Policy paper, a document designed to be the blueprint for the next decade of flight. He was giddy with enthusiasm at the potential for drones to change things for Australia quite significantly. The uptake of the technology, he said, was increasing because drones were becoming cheaper, safer and more efficient to use. “There are 17,000 commercial drone licence holders in Australia, and the industry is reaching a turning point, so it was the right time for the government to come in. We’re trying to go in with a whole-of-government, holistic approach.”
Here’s the thing: Google didn’t just pick Australia because of its handful of goldilocks towns, but because both CASA and state and federal governments were far keener to embrace change than those in the US, EU or UK. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that enthusiasm stems from Australia’s biggest constraint, the tyranny of distance. Australia’s towns are so far apart that our already modest population seems that much smaller. Why else do you think Amazon shunned away from launching here until only a few years ago, and then with only a token presence? Emerging aviation technologies have the potential to close that gap for our many remote communities hours away from major cities.
“What’s exciting is this is a transformative technology,” said Moore. “Drones will be moving around freight in the short-term and people in the longer-term. They will change not just economics and transport, but the way we live, and where we live, too.” In the short term, drones are carrying lighter and mostly perishable goods. But why stop there? Drones will soon be delivering just about anything you can order online, and it’s not too hard to imagine a future where we’ll be able to rent products, too. Need a drill to bodge together that Bunnings TV stand? A drone will fetch you one on a Saturday afternoon and return the next day to take it back. In other words, we could end up buying less, hoarding less and, crucially, wasting less, too.
One little-talked benefit of our drone revolution is the potential to substantially reduce carbon emissions – for so long a no-go topic for aviation. “If we’re moving freight or people, but we’re not tied to existing infrastructure, then we can start looking at, for instance, where we need to build roads,” said Moore. In future, he added, we’ll consider both how we can save money and reduce impacts through our use of drones. “I’m crystal balling here a little bit, but if you’ve got a long road that serves two remote properties, in 10, 20, 30 years, do you need to build that road anymore? Could you be flying people in and out with eVTOL (electrical vertical take-off and landing) aircraft and having things delivered there with a much smaller environmental footprint than what you had?”
It’s not just packages. Drones similar to those used by Wing have been used in Australia to deliver medicines, film movies, patch-up powerlines and patrol prisons. In May, Surf Life Saving Queensland announced it had purchased a stake in a company that used drones to drop inflatables on top of stricken swimmers. Little Ripper’s devices can sound alerts to swimmers in danger and even drop sea-marker dye in the water to track objects. Last year, NSW deployed a new generation of shark-monitoring drones so advanced they can even identify the creature’s size and species. The announcement formed part of an $8 million strategy that saw 80 drones deployed across 34 beaches and a gradual phasing out of helicopters.
Yet, perversely, the biggest boon to the growth of the drone industry has been COVID. A world in which we were all told to stay at home was the perfect scenario to convince sceptical portions of the population to embrace contactless, automated delivery. “We started seeing customers who skewed more elderly who might have been home during the day but now aren’t running out to buy that litre of milk because they can’t,” says Suskin. Wing also noticed an increase in adult children ordering for their parents because they didn’t want them to leave the house. The first set of lockdowns, in 2020, saw Wing’s orders increase 500 per cent in Logan alone, and the business has now passed the milestone of 100,000 flights across all its operations.
Not that it hasn’t had its challenges, mind. There remains a vocal minority of residents furious at the noise. When first trialled in Bonython, Canberra, locals set up a campaign group to complain. “When they do a delivery drop, they hover over the site, and it sounds like an extremely loud, squealing vacuum cleaner,” the exasperated group said on its website. Google has since countered by rolling out a new generation of quieter devices after consultation with the community. Some people are angry, too, that drones carry cameras. In reality, they are low-res and used to avoid bumping into objects en route. Nonetheless, an expanding drone presence worldwide will need to consider these factors, which surely aren’t going away.
Yet the biggest cautionary tale is the almost total collapse of Amazon’s far more high-profile attempt at muscling in on the action. The shopping giant launched a frenzied public relations campaign five years ago, claiming their tech was only a few years away from fruition. Amazon offered tours of its secret drone lab to schools, opened a vast new office in Cambridgeshire, England and released an array of flash promotional videos that received millions of views. The UK’s own regulator even fast-tracked approvals for testing, eager to keep the US giant onside. Yet earlier this year, a report by Wired magazine revealed Amazon had made 100 roles redundant at its operations in Cambridgeshire. Insiders claimed the project was “collapsing inwards”, “dysfunctional” and resembled “organised chaos”. As yet, commercial operations are a long way of flying. No wonder Google chose to launch the project in relative anonymity, 11,000km from their Californian base, so it could iron out its flaws in peace.
What’s stopping drones from progressing beyond Goldilocks towns isn’t the devices themselves, but how we manage them all in the sky. Right now, Wing can sidestep this problem because its drones fly 30 to 40 metres above houses but far lower than traditional aircraft. At the same time, ground-based ADS-B receivers detect manned objects that could get close. Yet that’s not going to hold forever. There are 1.6 million drones registered in the US alone – around 10 times the number of commercial aircraft ever built.
“With traditional aircraft, there are finite numbers that are up there to manage from a traffic-control perspective,” explained Moore. “With drones, that airspace is going to become increasingly integrated. The number of things that are flying in the sky is going to increase quite dramatically. There won’t be thousands in the sky at any one time. There could be hundreds of thousands, particularly if we’re looking at smaller items that are doing commercial deliveries or providing services at a much more intimate level in urban centres.”
Of course, everybody has quite different ideas about how we should be solving this problem. Wing, perhaps unusually, believes that there will likely be multiple systems rather than just one central ‘air traffic control’. Its argument is that each type of aviation user will have radically different needs. A hobbyist, it says, flying a drone in their backyard won’t need the support of a commercial operator. However, all these systems – or UAS Service Suppliers (USS), as they’re known – will need to communicate with these others. Uniform international standards will need to be formed in much the same way as all countries have similar road traffic systems.
“When we’ve got those sorts of huge numbers that are operating in our airspace, they’ll need a smart system to control them to be able to make sure that they interact safely,” said Moore. “There’s a whole range of other considerations, but safety is the central policy.” AI, he added, will make more sense than what we’ve currently got to run an air space of hundreds of thousands of objects. “And that’s why the discussion on unmanned traffic management is so important. Because, fundamentally, that’ll be the mechanism to control how these things move around and how they interact with each other and more traditional types of aircraft.”
But that’s all for the future. Right now, Wing is sidestepping Amazon’s bluster by taking baby steps towards expansion, eyeing more Goldilocks towns and a more diverse range of products to deliver. The next big thing, says Suskin, will be using drones to fly to individual businesses rather than asking them to move into its distribution centres. “That’s not too far off,” he hints. “It’s a complicated piece of the puzzle, but certainly a solvable one. And it’s something we’re working on. If we catch up six months from now, and you ask, ‘What’s different?’ I think the answer might be that the drones aren’t just at our own locations, they might be at other people’s as well.”
Think about that. Drones have the potential to go just about anywhere to pick up or deliver just about anything you could dream up. “When I’m at one of our sites, and drones are going everywhere, I still get excited because it’s so new,” says Suskin. “If a car drives past, you probably don’t think twice about it. But imagine being there to see the first car. I feel like we’re at that stage now with drones and drone delivery.”
“They’ll free us from the shackles of infrastructure completely,” said Moore. “And that’s the thing that makes the time that we’re living in here, now, for aviation, perhaps the biggest change since the advent of the jet engine. It’s looking like that smartphone in your pocket back when it looked like a lunch box that you had to carry out with a cord.
“The wonderful thing is that when we look at the drones now, it’s like looking at the Wright Brothers flying all over again.