Google subsidiary Wing has expanded its Canberra merchant base to 17 businesses as it prepares to extend its drone deliveries to the Gungahlin suburb of Harrison.
The company has been flying deliveries to the Gungahlin suburbs of Crace, Palmerston and Franklin since April, and was boosted in August by an extension granted to its operation to January 2020 by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development.
At the centre of a political storm over the noise and privacy complaints from its trial in Bonython and amid now vindicated claims that it was operating in a regulatory vacuum, Wing dialled down the whine of its drones and the Federal authorities acknowledged that the technology was in fact aircraft and needed to be regulated as such.
Wing CEO James Burgess, told Region Media in Canberra on Thursday the company welcomed clarity around the regulatory framework and was working with the Department and CASA on this.
“It’s in our interests as well to have proper government regulations on what the operation should look like,” he said. “The experience we’ve had in both Tuggeranong and now the Mitchell area been tremendous for that.”
He said the Department was conducting a review of Wing’s operations that will take them the better part of the rest of the year, and ”we’ll continue to be transparent about the data and our experience”.
Wing appreciated the balance in the authorities’ approach to drone deliveries.
“The balance that we see is good – the Commonwealth is looking at how this framework should be in place and what the regulations should be but also being mindful that they still want technology to develop in a positive way and still have an incentive for companies to invest in Australia.”
But beyond Harrison, Wing did not have any hard plans to expand on the four Gungahlin suburbs it is approved to fly over.
“We’re looking at bringing on community members in Harrison in the next few weeks, we’ll see how that goes and if that’s positive and working well on our side as well as CASA and the Department, we’ll look at what future steps will be,” Mr Burgess said.
Wing had conducted extensive outreach in Gungahlin and the modified drones had not attracted the antagonism that was so prominent in the south. The only negative feedback had come from the raised expectations of people who had gotten used to five-minute deliveries who thought seven minutes was too long.
The 17 merchants included a range of food, hardware, sporting and other products, and in August Wing added online clothing company The Iconic to its offering.
It now had about a dozen full-time employees, including customer service roles, packers and drone pilots, with about 10 to 15 drones deployed on a weekday.
But Mr Burgess would not reveal how many deliveries a week Wing was making.
The Mitchell base, where stock and drones are warehoused, was still being fitted out but would eventually house offices, operations staff, aircraft and the facilities to operate them.
Mitchell’s Pure Gelato is coming up to a second summer with Wing and after early apprehension about the service is enjoying the ride.
Owner Zoltan Tolgyesi said he had initially been sceptical but his young staff had encouraged him to become involved.
His first fear had been for the product, especially in a Canberra summer, but that had been quickly allayed.
“It’s been a very positive ride for us,” Mr Tolgyesi said. “The integrity of the gelato, I’ve not had any feedback to say that it’s melted.”
He said the relationship had increased his customer base and promoted the product, and he was glad Wing was taking it slowly.
Mr Burgess said Wing was careful to not over-extend or scale up too quickly, as well as not upset the community.
“It is still early days in this industry and Wing is one of the few that fly in suburban places above people’s houses and we are very sensitive that that will take some getting used to and that we have to do our part to make it acceptable,” he said.
But while the company is focused on single residential homes, eventually it hopes to be able to service the apartment market.
“We’re really interested in how we can make this technology work for all residents at every density level,” Mr Burgess said.
“As we go beyond these first four suburbs, and look at the potential to go into more areas of Gungahlin where there are apartment buildings and eventually high-rises, we think there are solutions for that but it’s a ways off still. We want to make sure were very successful in this first application.”
He said Canberra was leading the world in drone adoption, with Wing starting operations in Finland, and soon a pilot program in the US in Virginia.
“What we’re doing here is the most advanced delivery of its kind in the world and even our other operations in other countries are behind where Canberra is, and what we’re learning and developing here on the drone side but also the operations and team side, we’re being able to take that and those lessons to these other operations,” Mr Burgess said.
“Regulators in other countries ask us almost every other week, how’s it going in Canberra, what does the community think, is everything comfortable?”