Drone delivery promises convenience and speed, but at a cost to workers and communities
The Wing drone delivery company recently celebrated 100,000 deliveries with an unusual media explosion. Australia is at the forefront of Wing’s projects, with the company’s two largest test sites in Canberra and Logan in Queensland.
Wing tells a simple story of barista coffee and roasts dropping in your aisle all the time. Running out of Vegemite for the kids’ breakfast? Jump on the app, order, and a drone will lower a new pot at your doorstep before the toast is cold. All fast, contactless and safe for COVID.
But the real story is much more complex. Large-scale drone delivery will transform the skies, change expectations for rapid delivery, and obscure the work that makes it possible.
Owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Wing has enormous resources. New drone regulations are already being drafted and Wing is preparing to become the backbone of new air infrastructure.
How Wing works
Wing works much like many app delivery platforms. After registering, customers use the smartphone app to place their orders. Orders are then packaged at local base stations and transported to their destinations by Wing’s drones. On arrival, the packages are lowered to customers by winch, automatically detaching from the drone before it returns to the base station.
Unlike the recreational drones you might see over parks and beaches, Wing’s delivery drones can operate out of the operator’s line of sight. The flight is fully autonomous, with a pilot monitoring multiple flights at a time and able to take over or land if necessary.
How this will increase in volume and frequency is unclear. So far, the Canberra and Logan test sites provide clear, uncomplicated airspace and a flat, even urban environment.
For customers, all of this promises a fast, seamless and contactless experience.
Deloitte’s economic modeling of the drone industry in Australia notes that drones allow for greater automation of work. But behind every promise of “autonomous” or “automated” technology lie human workers.
Whose work does it save?
One of Wing’s main promises is blazingly fast on-demand delivery. Wing has an average delivery time of around 10 minutes. Their fastest recorded time – from ordering to product in hand – is 2 minutes and 47 seconds.
This is a remarkable acceleration in the pace and expectations of delivery. Regular mail can take days or weeks, but thanks to the “Amazon effect”, private delivery services have already shifted expectations from the next day to the same day and now even an hour or two.
While Wing’s drones are autonomous, service still relies on human labor. Pilots monitor flight paths, packers package products, and maintenance personnel take care of hardware and software. All these workers must perform to meet the delivery time of 10 minutes.
Amazon’s warehouses and food delivery apps have shown us how dangerous such tight deadlines can be for worker safety and devastating for morale. For precarious workers or workers in the odd-job economy, missing targets can mean instant dismissal.
Read more: “They follow our every move”: Why the cards were stacked against a union at Amazon
And the repercussions of a 10-minute delivery can extend beyond Wing. If consumer expectations change, competing delivery companies (who may not be using automated drones) will feel pressure to keep pace.
Modeling from Deloitte from 2020 suggests that drone delivery could cost less than half the current price of an e-bike delivery. In the Canberra trial, at least some products are delivered at the same price as in-store prices. However, it’s unclear how these delivery costs will be split among the wing, businesses, workers, and customers once the pilots are over – but if UberEats is something to do, it just might end up. be businesses and in particular deliverers. who bear most of the costs.
Close the sky
The delivery of drones can also have hidden environmental costs. Keeping cars and trucks off the road can reduce energy use, but mining lithium for batteries and providing power for data centers can reduce or eliminate these gains.
Getting sandwiches by drone could also mean more packaging and waste, as well as potential risks to birds and habitats from heavy air traffic.
But a bigger question for the public concerns the sky above our heads. Do we want to live under a cloud of drones?
Today, most of the time people are free to enjoy the sky above their homes and communities. Kids can fly kites and hobbyists can fly their own drones. Drone delivery risks privatizing a new layer of this common space and ceding it to Alphabet and others.
Building the legal and technical architecture to control the skies
To privatize a new part of the sky, Australian drone regulations will have to change. The current rules are very restrictive, built from a patchwork of international, federal and state laws developed primarily for airplanes.
Aside from hobbyists with a constant line of sight, operating in limited times and places, each use of a drone requires explicit authorization from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
New commercial applications are pushing this system beyond the breaking point. They often require operation beyond visual line of sight, near populated areas, under a wide range of conditions and without constant pilot supervision.
Backed by economic modeling from Deloitte suggesting that the drone industry could be worth around $ 15 billion by 2040 (with e-commerce and shipping costing around $ 600 million), the Australian government is pushing to modernize the regulation of drones. drones. This means reassessing the rules regarding environmental impacts, noise, safety, insurance, security and privacy.
The resulting changes will benefit different businesses and business models. For example, more flexible noise standards will benefit commercial applications such as delivery. This means that the big question is how the different stakeholders influence the development of these new laws.
Capture the standards for unmanned traffic management
Along with the new regulations, new digital infrastructures are developing to manage increasingly congested and “automated” skyways.
Wing is heavily involved, providing a flight planning and safety application for drone operators, a remote drone identification system and an “unmanned traffic management” service.
Owning the broad traffic management system is clearly part of the long term business strategy. As Google has shown with its Android operating system, building an infrastructure (even if it’s open source) can create a real business advantage.
Read more: The era of drones has arrived faster than the laws that govern them
Wing’s approach fits perfectly with the Australian government’s desire for a market-based strategy to develop and implement its first unmanned traffic management system over the next 5 years. The test programs at Canberra and Logan will help the company develop more comprehensive air traffic platforms that will govern airspace safety, communication standards, data management and whatever is needed for maintain autonomous air commerce.
Policy makers know that the commercial development of communications infrastructure creates competition risks. However, they may not have the tools and expertise to enforce equal and equitable access to the skyway infrastructure.
And at the present time, the fundamental question of whether we want to the drone deliveries that invade our skies are completely out of the question.
Take the plane
As we’ve seen with Uber and Airbnb, it’s hard to control tech companies once they’re already up and running. With Australia modernizing its aviation laws, Wing is well positioned to protect its agenda and make itself critical to future changes in the law.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also helping companies like Wing speed up their agenda, as they can promise less congestion, less consumer mobility, and less social contact.
Read more: Coles and Woolworths move to robot warehouses and on-demand labor as home deliveries soar
While the city skies cluttered with delivery drones may be far away, the groundwork is being laid. Communities, businesses and workers must play a much bigger role in the decision-making process if they want this future.
Having sushi delivered by drone for lunch might seem like a good idea, but the actual price might not have much to do with what’s charged on your card.