Drone delivery update: Amazon adds city, Wing unveils designs

Here's a look the latest developments from companies helping logistics take to the skies.

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(Illustration by The Current)

Welcome to Near Future. In this weekly feature, The Current spotlights innovations powering the next wave of commerce.

For years, drone delivery remained a subject left to R&D teams, while the rest of us were left to use our imagination. This left room for plenty of speculation, as well.

In recent months, however, the companies developing these unmanned delivery systems are making visible progress, whether it’s taking to the skies to make deliveries or showing their work. Just over a month after we last featured a look at drone delivery in Near Future, a fresh round of news items finds us checking in with fresh updates.

Here’s a look at the latest:

Amazon’s Prime Air sets a course for Texas

A Prime Air drone in the sky.

A Prime Air drone in the sky. (Courtesy photo)

In June, Amazon announced that it planned to make the long-awaited debut of its drone delivery service in Lockeford, California. On Friday, the company said Prime Air will also be touching down in College Station, Texas.

The home of Texas A&M University will start to receive orders via drone later this year, Amazon said.

This came on the heels of Amazon receiving approval from the College Station City Council for the company to build a facility within city limits, according to College Station media outlet The Eagle. Public hearings included testimony from some residents who voiced concerns about safety and noise. In the end, the proposal passed unanimously.

"Amazon's new facility presents a tremendous opportunity for College Station to be at the forefront of the development of drone delivery technology," said College Station Mayor Karl Mooney, in a statement released by Amazon. "We look forward to partnering with Amazon and Texas A&M and are confident that Amazon will be a productive, conscientious, and accountable participant in our community."

It underscores how Amazon’s drone delivery service is moving into launch sequence after years of development. Now comes the test of how it will fare in real-world delivery conditions.

Wing’s many drones

Sketches of drones.

Wing drone plans. (Courtesy photo)

When it starts flying above College Station, Amazon will join Wing among operational drone delivery services in Texas. The Alphabet-owned company is making drops from Walgreens stores in the suburbs of Dallas.

This week, Wing CEO Adam Woodworth detailed in a blog post how the company is designing different-sized drones for varying capacities of delivery runs and loads.

The company has built a hardware and software system that serves as a core to its work. These can be used to create a variety of different vehicles. Wing’s development is built around the principle that packages carried by drone should weigh 25% of a plane.

“We can have tiny planes for pharmaceutical delivery, big planes for shipping fulfillment, long range aircraft for logistic flights, and dedicated hovering platforms for delivery in cities," Woodworth wrote.

So far, Wing has a drone designed to carry a payload of 2.5 pounds. It is working on a smaller drone that can carry .6 pounds, and a larger model for up to 7 pounds.

The company released an “aircraft library" to show off its work. The video below illustrates this (and has lots of great drone footage):

Walmart’s land and air patent

With a new patent filing, Walmart signaled it is exploring a vehicle that would combine land and air in one robotic delivery system.

According to Modern Shipper, the patent filed in late June is for automated guided vehicles (AGVs). These would start out taking a land route. But if an obstacle emerges on the ground, the vehicle would deploy a drone that gets a package to its final destination. Drones are described as the back-up, providing a failsafe for a driverless car that might run into an unexpected roadblock.

While a Walmart spokesperson made clear that a patent doesn't necessarily mean a new techology will become a product, the filing is a sign that what ends up being functioning drone delivery service in the US might not only involve airborne vehicles. In a wider frame, it also underscores a central point about unmanned systems: They might run into things, and it's hard to ensure that they don't.

The latest filing comes as Walmart is testing a wide-ranging drone delivery service through a partnership with DroneUp. It aims to be within range of four million US households this year.

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