You most likely wouldn’t use a sedan to carry a ton of gravel, nor would you enlist a flatbed truck to carry a single television set.
For the most part, the transportation industry has solved the problem of matching the vehicle to the cargo for traditional modes like ocean shipping and trucking. But emerging modes, like drone delivery, are still working out the kinks.
Wing, the drone delivery arm of Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL), has been at the drawing board. The firm on Thursday unveiled the Aircraft Library, a behind-the-scenes initiative that has been repurposing the core components of 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.
Wing has been busy in recent months. In March, it hit the 200,000 delivery milestone for its services worldwide in the U.S., Australia and Finland. Then, the following month, it launched one of its largest projects to date, a commercial service in the Texas suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth. But that hasn’t stopped the company from exploring new avenues.
“While we’ve been doing this flying all around the globe, we’ve also had a team that’s been focused on what comes next,” Wing CEO Adam Woodworth said in a promotional video.
In Woodworth’s view, delivery will always be multimodal — the way you deliver a refrigerator will not be the same as for a gallon of milk. Right now, Wing uses only the Hummingbird W-B aircraft for its commercial services. However, Woodworth knows the company will soon need to diversify.
“The physics of flight are very unforgiving,” he said. “To optimize the performance of an aircraft, to optimize the performance of a whole delivery system, it just makes sense to build airplanes, to build vehicles that are well-matched to the thing they’re carrying around.”
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To accomplish that, Woodworth and his team are repurposing the core components of the Hummingbird drone. Those include the motors, battery and computer that serves as the “brain” of the aircraft, as well as the materials used to build the wings and hull.
“We can take these elements, and we can put them together in new ways to address different problems: to carry bigger boxes, to carry smaller boxes, to fly further,” Woodworth said.
The first prototype Wing unveiled, currently being referred to as Article 1, is a compact model that would be suited to carry a smaller load, such as a bag of medicine from a pharmacy. The second prototype, Article 2, is built to carry 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 new prototypes are designed to carry payloads equal to about 25% of the mass of the aircraft — a car, meanwhile, typically carries less than 0.1% of its mass.
According to Woodworth, the main challenge for the smaller Article 1 has been reducing 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 bulkier Article 2, the biggest obstacle is figuring out how to get the package on board.
Woodworth also hinted that more prototypes are still to come. Specifically, he mentioned a drone for long-range deliveries, as well as models built to carry different kinds of packages from food to medicines. The hope is that Wing will use the Aircraft Library to get these new models off the ground quickly.
“When the need arises — whether that’s from a new partner that we’re working with that wants to carry around a different set of goods [or] whether that’s a different use case that we’ve identified — we can go into this library, go to the shelf, pull off one of these designs and push it through the rest of the development processes,” he said.
Having completed more than 250,000 deliveries with the Hummingbird to date, Wing thinks 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 having one drone pick up all the slack.
“The future of drone delivery is really about the system as a whole,” he said. “No one element can solve all these problems all at once. You’re going to need all of the pieces working together. You’re probably going to need multiple different types of airplanes to solve different types of delivery problems. You’re going to really need to bring all of these pieces together holistically to make drone delivery a reality.”