Drones are now delivering groceries in Canberra – how does it work?

Major Australian supermarket Coles yesterday announced the launch of its partnership with drone delivery service Wing to bring drone-delivered groceries to customers in Canberra.

The battery-powered drones have a one-metre wingspan, weigh about 4.8 kilograms, and are equipped with both fixed wings and hover propellers, allowing them to behave as miniature versions of both aeroplanes and helicopters. They can travel at speeds of more than 110 km/h and carry packages of up to 1.2 kilograms.

According to Simon Rossi, General Manager at Wing Australia, the drones typically require less energy to make a delivery than a kettle does to boil. 

So how does drone delivery work? 

Products can be ordered using the Wing app. Coles is currently offering delivery of more than 250 of its most popular grocery items, including bread, fresh produce, healthcare items, and toilet paper. 

When the order is received, the products are packed and loaded onto a drone, which ascends to its flying altitude of about 45 metres above ground and sets off for the delivery location. The drone will follow a route planned by Wing’s unmanned traffic management (UTM) software. 

“The aircraft automatically monitors its systems to make sure it is safe to fly and will prevent take-off or automatically take contingency actions if a problem is detected,” Rossi explains.  

“Our trained remote aircraft pilots oversee everything to make sure the system is operating smoothly.” 

Once arrived, the drone descends to its delivery height of about seven metres above ground and hovers as it lowers the package to the ground on a tether. The package is automatically released, and the drone returns to the delivery facility. 

Customers can track the progress of their delivery on the Wing app. According to Wing, the company’s fastest delivery time to date is two minutes and 47 seconds from order to delivery. 

Is drone delivery catching on?

Wing has existing drone delivery partnerships with several businesses in both Canberra and Logan, Queensland. The service also has a presence in the US and Finland. 

According to Rossi, the company completed more than 100,000 drone deliveries in Australia in 2021, and 30,000 in the first two months of 2022. 

Early feedback from customers on the partnership with Coles in Canberra has been positive, he says. 

“Customers are ordering a range of items including pantry staples like bread, eggs, and milk, fresh produce and convenience meals, as well as health care items like over-the-counter cough medicine and bandages.”

Are there any risks to drone delivery? 

Adding large numbers of unmanned flying machines to the air would seem to have the potential to be disruptive. 

“Perhaps Wing’s most interesting feature is its airspace integration and deconfliction,” says Pauline Pounds, an associate professor in information technology and electrical engineering at the University of Queensland. 

“Balancing the needs of CASA [the Civil Aviation Safety Authority], commercial aviation operators and other drone operators requires some care.”

Because they fly in a zone between ‘ground clutter’ and manned aviation traffic, the drones are likely to remain comparatively safe. This also helps explain why flying drones are increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, while driverless cars languish on the sidelines. 

“It’s far easier to build a robot to fly in clear air where obstacles are rare, rather than on roads where pedestrians and human drivers may behave erratically,” says Pounds. 

However, the drones’ airspace won’t be completely risk-free. 

“A collision between a drone and a bird is unlikely to be a pleasant experience for either,” Pounds admits. 

Is drone delivery the future of grocery shopping?

Unfortunately, a drone can’t yet do your entire weekly grocery shop for you, and Rossi emphasises that this isn’t the service’s intention. 

“Rather, it is to enable customers to quickly order small grocery and convenience items, coffees, and snacks which they may need in a hurry,” he says. 

But could it be done one day?

“Scaling drones to carry heavier payloads is a fundamental challenge: the more the drone carries, the shorter its flight will be,” says Pounds. 

“Drones are optimised for specific payload-range characteristics. Improving performance requires more energy-dense batteries, more efficient propulsion systems; the same limitations that hold back flying cars. 

“However, a distributed network of mini-aerodromes allowing packages to make many short hops – like a drone ‘Pony Express’ – could allow these systems to scale without limit, much like mobile phone base station cells.” 

Coles frames the new partnership with Wing as part of its strategy to become Australia’s most sustainable supermarket, as drone delivery options could reduce the need for cars and trucks. 

Wing also emphasise their green credentials, describing drone delivery as “one of the fastest, safest and most environmentally friendly modes of delivering goods when compared to a truck or car”. 

But with the drones only able to carry a kilo or two, would environmentally-conscious supermarkets be better off investing in electric cars and trucks instead? 

“Flying is innately energy-intensive and will always be more demanding than a comparable electric vehicle rolling the same distance, but drones fly directly point to point and do not require detours or stop at traffic lights,” says Pounds. 

“However, both drones and wheeled electric vehicles also have differing manufacturing, maintenance and disposal costs; whether autonomous cars or drones turn out to be more energy efficient over their lifetimes has yet to be seen.”

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