Chinese aviation administrators, for example, have already approved drone deliveries by the e-commerce giant JD.com and delivery giant SF Holding Co. But in the United States, it will depend on whether regulators eventually allow drone companies to have autonomous systems in which multiple aircraft are overseen by one pilot and whether they can fly beyond the vision of that pilot. Current regulations do not permit multiple drones per operator without a waiver. Operators like Wing, the drone-delivery company owned by Google parent Alphabet, have that capability.
But the immediate economic return isn’t clear yet. According to the chief executive of Wing, James Burgess, “scale doesn’t concern us right now. We strongly believe that eventually we will be able to develop a delivery service for communities that will enable them to transport items in just a few minutes at low cost.”
The company, whose drones can now travel round trip up to 20 kilometers — just over 12 miles — is participating in various stages of testing on three different continents. Its first pilot program is in a suburb of Canberra, Australia, where it is working with local merchants to deliver small packages, including over-the-counter medicine, as well as food. The Australian regulators have issued a permit to allow one pilot to operate up to 20 drones at a time with virtual oversight.
“We’ve tried to keep expectations to a minimum and stayed humble. We didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions,” Mr. Burgess said. The Wing drone is a hybrid that includes, yes, wings for horizontal flying, as well as miniaturized propellers — like a helicopter’s — that allow for hovering over a destination. Somewhat surprisingly, the most popular item ordered in the Australia pilot is coffee, which can be received — still hot — in as little as three minutes from the time the order is placed.
This spring, the company will begin a new trial in Helsinki, for which it is soliciting views as to what should be delivered.
Mr. Burgess also said that, separate from drone tests, the company and others were working on a so-called unmanned traffic management system. Akin to virtual air traffic controllers, the system will be designed to permit multiple aircraft — manned and unmanned — to fly safely in the airspace simultaneously. Wing is also one of several companies participating in a pilot program in Virginia. As with its testing in Finland and Australia, Wing will focus on the delivery of consumer goods, including food.