One of the enormous changes coming to us that has accelerated significantly of late is drone delivery, which promises to provide more speedy fulfillment of online orders. First for small items like meals or medicines, both of which are critical during the pandemic, and eventually for larger items — and even people.
Still, drone delivery has a few challenges to overcome which include range, air traffic control, safety, and consumer trust. All of these must be developed to the point where the related services are trusted to do what they promise, without drama.
One of the leading companies developing a drone solution is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, named Wing. It has the drones, the air traffic control system, and the most extensive test fleet in the air currently. Still, Wing will face competition from other firms and internal groups at shipping companies in this race for instant gratification.
Let’s talk about each of the elements and why Wing is so far ahead, and we’ll end, as always, with my product of the week: the first transparent TV at commercial scale from Xiaomi.
The Elements of Drone Delivery
Drone delivery isn’t easy primarily because we want the things to run on batteries, and battery energy efficiency is still inferior in terms of both energy density and weight when compared to fossil fuels. So part of a delivery solution is to have depots within the 6- to 9-mile effective delivery range of the more advanced delivery drones.
A drone design is needed that is reasonably safe and relatively energy-efficient; otherwise, the depot density and liability become unreasonable. Relying only on the heavy-lift capability of the drone won’t do it. The wings or lifting bodies need to be utilized to extend the range and the speed of the drone to minimize airtime, to conserve energy. Delivery drones need to be lightweight to reduce damage if they fail (lower terminal velocity), and to reduce the base energy the drone body needs to stay aloft.
Now with all of the drones in the air, some sort of traffic control system is needed. However, humans won’t cut it because the traffic will be significant when delivery service hits critical mass. So this traffic control system must be automated, work between drone service providers, and integrate with the traffic control systems in use by commercial, law enforcement, and military aviation. This platform should be integrated with the tracking systems that consumers have access to, so they can receive their drone-delivery package.
Finally, you need a process to assure the package and drone are both protected in transit and that the package ends up in the hands of the designated recipient. If significant numbers of drones or packages end up stolen or damaged, the proposition of widespread of drone delivery would be destined to fail.
Wing has developed solutions for each of these elements, which is why currently, as far as independent drone solutions (Amazon has developed similar capabilities), it is ahead. Wing’s plan includes depots within the reliable range limits of their planned drone services. I think we’ll eventually find that shopping centers will make very viable drone depots in the future.
Wing’s drone design is inspired. Using industrial-grade Styrofoam for the drone body and a lifting-wing design, Wing has created a light drone that can use the wings to extend the drone’s range and lower its terminal velocity, and in turn the potential for damage in the event of a catastrophic failure.
Wing adopted OpenSky, an app-based offering in place for both commercial and consumer markets. OpenSky services are currently only available in Australia, but provide a vision of what’s to come in other regions. The app lets drone flyers place a pin on any location in Australia in order to gather information about flight rules.
Future planned enhancements are consistent with an automated air traffic control system, and those improvements are expected to arrive long before drone delivery reaches critical mass. They must; otherwise full deployments will likely be delayed until those enhancements are in place and thoroughly tested.
Finally, the Wing drone uses a built-in winch that keeps the drone elevated and safe, and the application the recipient will use assures they are on site to receive the package when it arrives. This helps protect the drone from damage, and better assures the package goes where intended. User tracking could be an option to assure the person at the delivery location is the same for whom the package is intended.
Wing currently has the leading solution, which is concerning to independent providers coming to market. Amazon, however, may be ahead particularly with heavy lifting and their investigation of alternative depot designs like dirigibles or blimps, which are mobile, although those have additional safety, weather, and air-traffic concerns.
In any race, being ahead doesn’t count for much now if you don’t get to the finish line first; and Wing’s parent company doesn’t have the best reputation for finishing big projects like this. Like many tech companies, Alphabet tends to fund based not on need, but on what some executive believes in their gut is good enough — and often, it isn’t.
Besides, Amazon is closing fast and appears to be more aggressively looking at things like heavy-lift drones. Wing’s drones don’t have the carrying capacity for medium-sized appliances or a grocery cart — and there are other companies already experimenting with people-carrying drones which, like Uber cars, could also be used for delivery.
Wing has started strong, but we still have years to go before this race is decided, and they’ll have to run hard to beat the increasing number of competitors entering this segment.
I don’t get excited about TVs that much anymore, but there was time I spent US$7,500 for one of the first wall-mounted flat-screen Plasma TVs in the market — and it was only a 42-inch. It replaced a large CRT that sat on the floor and looked a ton better. Since then, flat TVs have become common, and as we raised resolution, the content didn’t keep up well, and excitement dwindled.
Well, Xiaomi may have just changed this with its Mi TV LUX. This TV looks like a plate of clear glass when it’s off, and then it performs just like a flat-screen TV when turned on. The base houses the electronics, and it uses OLED technology, so it doesn’t need a light source. It should result in deeper blacks, but the bright display may offset that.
The Mi TV is as awe-inspiring to look at as was the first flat screen, with one big exception; it doesn’t obscure what’s behind it when it’s turned off. Now, if you are like me, when you look at what’s behind your TV, it isn’t that attractive — so you’d need to rethink TV placement. The Mi would do best as a TV in the middle of a room, or in place of a TV that obscures a window. Its transparent characteristic might stimulate some new ideas about where to situate a TV.
I think this unit would work better as a monitor than it would a TV, because monitors are often placed on desks in open floor plan offices — at least before the pandemic. The ideal setting would be one where this TV/monitor is turned off, and clear. That would open the office up, or the user could blank the monitor and see who was on the other side of their desk, as needed. Think how cool this would look as a monitor on the desk of a receptionist, secretary or executive.
Ironically, given what I paid for my first flat-screen TV, this thing is $7K at 55-inches, so rather expensive for its size. But if you have a yacht with a view, want to impress your clients, or want something that will have your guests catch their breath, well the Xiaomi Mi TV Lux is my product of the week. (Don’t tell my wife, she’ll take away my credit card again.) Oh, and it could be perfect for watching virtual events in your office — though, if you turned this into a window, it could be even more interesting!