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December 18, 2020

Hindsight is 2020: Five Lessons from a Year Unlike Any Other

  • , By the numbers
  • , Drone delivery

2020 requires no introduction; it was a difficult year for many. And while we're grateful we were able to play a small, supportive role by providing delivery service to our communities, I think we speak for our entire industry when we say that we hope to be able to do more to help in the future. Here are our most optimistic takeaways from the most challenging year we hope any of us ever face, and some hope for a better 2021. 

While COVID made the benefit of contactless delivery obvious, it also highlighted other benefits of drone delivery that will outlive the pandemic. 

At a time when limiting close contact with other people became important, the use of our delivery service grew 500% in 2020 over 2019.  And while much of that growth initially occurred when people began to stay home during the pandemic, use of our delivery services remained well above pre-COVID levels through the end of the year. Even in Australia, where infection rates in our service areas declined to zero and schools and businesses reopened, we continued to see drone delivery remain a bigger part of everyday life. 

The local businesses we worked with told us that drone delivery became one of the few ways they could reach customers. Mockingbird Cafe, a Virginia bakery, told us drone delivery accounted for about 25 percent of total sales during the early days of the pandemic.  In Logan, Australia, Extraction Artisan Coffee was able to keep baristas working during the pandemic by delivering their coffees with Wing.

The events of 2020 reminded all of us that drones are not only helpful for contactless delivery, but that they are also far safer than cars or trucks, are far cheaper to build and operate, and are also incredibly energy efficient. The value of quick, affordable access to food and medicine existed before COVID-19 and will exist after it abates, but 2020 began to introduce more communities -- and aviation regulators -- to the broad range of benefits that drone delivery can provide at scale. 

Drone delivery is uniquely suited to reach people wherever they happen to be.
Prior to 2020, Wing focused primarily on residential drone delivery. But in Finland, we tried something new this year: delivery spots in public parks. In a world-first for Wing last September, and with the support of the city of Helsinki and the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, we delivered food and drinks to picnickers in two separate parks in the Finnish capital.

We’ve just scratched the surface on all the uses for this technology, and communities are teaching us new ones all the time.

Never was this more clear than in Virginia this summer, when a local librarian approached us with the idea to use drones to deliver library books to local students while the schools were closed due to the pandemic. If we’re being honest, this idea had not occurred to us, but we thought we would give it a try. On the first day we launched the drone delivery library service in June, we delivered well over a dozen books to local students -- today, the library deliveries are one of our most popular offerings in Virginia.
Meanwhile, in Australia, tradespeople make 60 million unplanned trips to the store to collect hardware items or tools they don’t have on site. For “tradies”, that equates to lost time for 1 in every 3 construction projects (read more here). Wing is now exploring how, by replacing a share of these trips, drone delivery could save time and money for both households and the construction and maintenance industry. Wing is already partnered with Browns Plains Hardware in Logan, Australia, and we look forward to continuing to explore ways drone delivery could improve efficiency at worksites.

And finally, apart from being our oldest and largest operational deployment, Australia was also the home of our most interesting application in 2020. In Canberra, locals were able to keep a national tradition known as the “democracy sausage” alive, delivering “sausage sizzles” by drone on election day.

Around the world, the drone industry and aviation regulators quietly made significant progress on drone traffic management.
COVID-oriented delivery and relief efforts generated most of the drone headlines in 2020, but industry and regulators quietly made some significant progress on Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) as well, particularly in Europe. UTM will be absolutely critical to allow drones to safely share the sky with each other, and other aircraft. The benefits that commercial drone applications promise at scale won’t be realized without it.
Wing worked with aviation authorities and industry partners to advance UTM from theory to practice in 2020, contributing to the development of UTM systems in France and the United Kingdom. We participated in efforts to demonstrate UTM services, like remote identification, in the United States and Switzerland and participated in standards-making bodies like ASTM International to enable a globally harmonized approach to drone integration. In November, we demonstrated strategic deconfliction and remote identification of drones in the FAA’s UTM Pilot Program. The completion of this program was a big step toward showing that capabilities to support drone integration in the United States are production-ready today.

Museums aren’t just for old stuff.
At its heart, Wing is a collection of grown-up kids that love airplanes. That’s why the announcement in August that the Wing aircraft used for the first commercial drone delivery to a U.S. home is now part of the collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was one of our highlights of the year. That museum has inspired many members of our team, and so it’s a real honor to now have our little place in aviation history.

This year did not go as anyone imagined it would, but we’re grateful for the lessons learned. Drone delivery demonstrated its value in 2020, and in 2021 we expect it to become available in many more places around the world.