Alphabet's Wing drone delivery service is finally taking off in the US. Wing, owned by Google's parent company, said Thursday that it's launching a test program next month for its unmanned aircraft in Christiansburg, Virginia. For the test, Wing is partnering with FedEx and Walgreens for home deliveries.
The company said customers in the area will be able to use the service with an app to receive packages. At Walgreens, people will be able to buy things like cold and allergy medicines and kids' snacks like Goldfish and gummy bears. Wing is also partnering with Sugar Magnolia, a local retailer in Southwest Virginia, to deliver sweets, stationery and paper goods. For the test program, the deliveries will be free, though customers still have to transact with the retailers.
"This will be the most advanced drone delivery trial in the us," James Burgess, CEO of Wing, said on a press conference call. "We're very excited about the promise."
Here's how the delivery process will work: The drones will take off from and land at a nearby service center. They'll fly about 100 to 200 feet in the air. When the drone is ready to drop off a package, it'll hover at about 23 feet and lower the box with a tether to a backyard or doorstep. Wing's drones weigh about 10 pounds and will be able to carry packages that weigh about 2 to 3 pounds, Burgess said. The aircraft will fly 60 to 70mph and can travel about 6 miles one way. The company said items will be delivered within 5 to 10 minutes of ordering.
Proponents of large-scale drone delivery say it could have several benefits, including environmental boons and faster shipments of medical supplies in emergencies. But the technology has also faced setbacks as regulators worry about safety and airspace issues.
Wing was born out of Alphabet's X unit, the moonshot factory that's developed, balloons that beam internet connections to the Earth, and smart contact lenses. The initiative began in 2012 and was spun out of the X research lab last year. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration certified Wing as an air carrier, allowing it to deliver commercial goods.
In December, Wing announced it would launch in Helsinki, Finland, this year. Before that, the tech had been tested in Australia, where the company partnered with local businesses to deliver food, drinks, medicine and household items.
Alphabet isn't the only tech company experimenting with drone delivery. Three years ago, Amazon said it was testing drones that could deliver packages within 30 minutes of an order being placed. Zipline, a startup based in Half Moon Bay, California, has developed a drone delivery system to transport blood to rural regions of Rwanda.
Wing said there's no time line for when the trial will expand to other cities.
"We still have a ways to go," Burgess said. "There's a lot of sensitivity around the project, understandably."