Reported earlier this week, Alphabet drone delivery subsidiary Wing’s planned launch of a Texas commercial drone delivery offering, the United States’ first such service in a major metropolitan area, came to fruition on Thursday.
Wing began drone deliveries of health and wellness products from Walgreens in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs of Frisco and Little Elm, in addition to ice cream from Blue Bell Creameries, pet medications from Easyvet and first aid kits from Texas Health.
According to Wing, the new service will reach “tens of thousands” of homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, making it the largest metropolis in the world with access to on-demand drone delivery services. That adds to Wing’s growing portfolio of drone delivery operations, which also includes services in Helsinki, Finland, and Canberra and Logan, Australia.
The launch is a big deal for the Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) subsidiary, which had completed 200,000 commercial drone deliveries by the beginning of March and recently had one of its busiest 24 hours ever, completing over 1,000 deliveries in a single day. But it could be an even bigger deal for last-mile delivery.
Until now, commercial drone delivery services in the U.S. had been limited to rural areas and small towns, removed from the complex infrastructure of the cityscape. Much of that activity has been centered in North Carolina, which has quickly become a hotbed for drone delivery innovations.
Under the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program and the subsequent BEYOND initiative, of which the North Carolina Department of Transportation is a member, the state has become something of a testing ground for drone delivery companies including Matternet, Zipline, Volansi, Flytrex and UPS Flight Forward, the national carrier’s drone delivery arm.
Wing too has used small towns to test out pilots of its commercial service. It began trialing its drone delivery offering in Virginia last April and in Texas in October, but those services don’t paint the full picture of what an urban drone delivery network might mean for last-mile delivery.
For that, one can look at the company’s successes with drones in the metropolitan area of Logan, Australia, which has a population of more than 300,000 people. There, Wing has completed more than 50,000 commercial deliveries to suburban homes, flying over crowded streets and buildings.
Typically, drones have been largely absent from urban and suburban areas because of the potential for safety or privacy issues, but with the FAA’s introduction of Remote Identification rules and the Operations Over People provision, regulations are beginning to open metro areas up to commercial drone delivery at scale.
Texas is a massive state so, of course, Wing isn’t alone. Rival drone delivery provider Flytrex recently announced its own service just a few miles away, a pilot program in the nearby town of Granbury. That offering will bring delivery in three minutes or less to between 2,000 and 3,000 suburban families, Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash told Modern Shipper last week.
That kind of speed has important implications for the future of last-mile delivery, of which drones are increasingly becoming a staple. Often, cities and metropolitan areas are some of the most inaccessible places for traditional modes of transport like trucks or planes, which are bogged down by traffic congestion and an airspace crowded with tall buildings.
Watch: FAA discussing some rule changes for drone pilots
That means that typically, the last mile in cities faces more resistance than its suburban counterparts. That can lead to delays that are often make-or-break mistakes for companies in an era when consumers expect near-perfect customer service — and will often switch to a competitor if they don’t get it. Drones could help by streamlining that urban final mile.
Further aiding drones’ case as a legitimate last-mile delivery mode is the fact that consumers, at least so far, have been receptive to the idea. According to a Virginia Tech survey of 800 residents of Christiansburg, Virginia — where Wing operates another delivery service — 87% of respondents had positive sentiments about drone delivery, while nearly nine in 10 said they would be likely to use the service if it were available to them.
Drone delivery could also have a significant economic and environmental impact on the last mile. Another Virginia Tech study, which examined the potential benefits of drones being deployed at scale in an average U.S. metro area, found that drones could generate up to $284,000 in new annual sales per year for a participating local business.
The study also discovered that drones could save the average consumer up to 56 hours worth of errands and trips and reduce vehicle traffic by 294 million miles per year — equivalent to taking over 25,000 cars off the road. That reduction could also lead to a decline in CO2 production of 113,900 tons, approximately the same impact as planting 46,000 acres of new forest.
Of course, it isn’t all clear skies for the future of drone delivery. There are still concerns surrounding airspace and privacy regulations, as well as potential issues with safety and security. But if Wing’s launch of its Dallas-Fort Worth service is any indication, then it may not be long before the skies are dominated by drones anyway.