Alphabet’s Wing to Begin Medical Drone Deliveries in Ireland

The Google parent’s drone delivery subsidiary has already delivered hundreds of thousands of food, convenience, grocery, and e-commerce items.

Wing medical drone delivery

A Wing delivery drone carries a healthcare payload from partner Apian. [Courtesy: Wing]

Google has put almost the entire internet at the fingertips of its users, with just about any piece of information only a few keyboard strokes and mouse clicks away. Its parent company is now trying to create the same accessibility for medical items.

Wing, the drone delivery subsidiary of Alphabet that delivers items like beer and peanuts to baseball fans, extra balls and tees to golf courses, and food to hungry customers in bustling cities, on Wednesday announced it will launch its first medical drone delivery service in Ireland this year. The new network will deliver pharmacy items, laboratory samples, and medical devices and supplies between healthcare providers.

“Think of this as a 'provider-to-provider' service, or B2B, meaning not directly to the consumer or households,” a Wing spokesperson told FLYING. “We will be delivering to hospitals and other healthcare providers, which is different from our residential deliveries you might have seen elsewhere.”

To integrate into medical logistics networks, Wing will partner with Apian, a U.K.-based company founded by a team of National Health Service doctors. The firm uses APIs to combine medical and aviation systems, connecting healthcare providers with drone operators and services through a single, automated, on-demand delivery system for critical cargo.

The partners will spend the next few months working with local healthcare and pharmacy partners to create a rapid medical delivery network in the Irish county of South Dublin, where more than one-quarter of a million potential customers reside. 

The suburban setting is one most drone delivery companies would avoid. In these densely populated regions, the aircraft need to be able to avoid tall buildings while ensuring the safety and privacy of hundreds of thousands of people on the ground. 

But delivering to congested areas is Wing’s forte, having already launched services in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area and several midsized Australian cities. 

Later this year, the company expects to begin working with hospitals and other care providers in Dublin to make drone deliveries in the Irish capital a reality. It told FLYING that customers can anticipate a maximum of 20 deliveries per day at launch.

“Together, Wing and Apian believe that healthcare should benefit from on-demand delivery much like consumers do in their personal lives,” wrote Shannon Nash, chief financial officer of Wing, in a blog post. “Medical drone delivery can provide a faster, more reliable, lower-cost solution than ground-based alternatives. We aim to address speed, inefficiencies, and also environmental challenges by reducing vehicles on the road.”

Wing’s South Dublin drone delivery network won’t be its first activity in Ireland. The announcement follows the company’s October 2022 launch of a small-scale demonstration of an operation in Lusk, a town about 12 miles north of Dublin.

The goal of that demonstration was to gain experience operating in Ireland and learning from the local community which services would add the most value. The company said Wednesday it received important feedback from those trials—and it appears medical deliveries came highly requested.

Wing said it chose to launch in Ireland because of the support it has received from the Irish Aviation Authority. It also pointed to the local community’s embrace of emerging technologies, which has fostered the growth of companies such as Manna Drone Delivery, the country’s preeminent provider. To Wing’s point, Manna founder and CEO Bobby Healy in July hailed the American firm as “the gold standard in our industry.”

“They have a platform that’s way ahead of everyone, a team that has the ability and capital to really go forward, and they’re ready to scale,” he said. “They’ll be held back in the U.S., just because regulations aren’t there yet. But I think you can safely say that it will be Manna and Wing scaling in Europe in the not-too-distant future.”

As Healy alluded, Wing does not plan to stop at Ireland. Servicing all of Europe presents a lofty challenge, but at minimum it plans to turn the U.K. into a key market.

“We also look forward to future opportunities in the U.K. after years of collaboration with regulators and contributions to numerous policy forums,” Nash wrote.

Drone Delivery Dominance

The addition of medical deliveries could add to Wing’s well-established drone delivery dominance. Earlier this year, the company surpassed 300,000 deliveries globally, dwarfing the likes of Amazon Prime Air, UPS Flight Forward, and other key rivals.

Wing currently flies in 10 total locations, with its largest services in the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales. There, it makes store-to-door deliveries for grocery store chain Coles Supermarkets and accepts in-app orders through a partnership with DoorDash, among other services. On a good day, the company will make 1,000 deliveries—or about one every 25 seconds—to Australian customers.

In addition, Wing drones are abuzz in the suburbs of Dallas and Christiansburg, Virginia, the firm’s first U.S. market. Helsinki is another major service area.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, Wing got its wings primarily by delivering hot meals, convenience and grocery items, and last-mile e-commerce orders. Now, though, the firm says it is fully committed to adding health care services.

“Drone delivery in healthcare has a tremendous opportunity for scale, both in operational service and in benefits delivered to patients and providers,” a spokesperson told FLYING. “We look forward to continued work in healthcare drone delivery in the future.”

That industry is currently dominated by Bay Area-based Zipline, which boasts expansive services in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as in the U.S. in Arkansas, Utah, and North Carolina. In May, the company announced it had completed more than 600,000 deliveries of blood, vaccines, prescriptions, and other medical cargo.

Wing has a long way to go to catch Zipline. But there’s a key difference between the two that could give the former a leg up.

Unlike Zipline and other rivals, Wing has opted to fly mostly in urban settings, which have largely been untouched by drone delivery. Zipline also hopes to operate in cities with the launch of its P2 delivery system. But the Alphabet subsidiary is building its entire business around those densely populated markets.

In March, it revealed its concept for the Wing Delivery Network, considered the model for the company moving forward. The idea is to use the roofs and parking lots of city storefronts as delivery hubs and to fly its drones like last-mile delivery vans, traveling between stores and continuously making deliveries where demand is highest.

The decentralized system runs on a proprietary logistics automation software, which allocates drones to “pads” where they take off, land, and charge. The system also manages Autoloaders, staged modules that allow store associates to “preload” orders drones can pick up automatically. Essentially, it’s an automated version of curbside pickup.

The system is designed with flexibility at the forefront. It can turn just about any location into a delivery hub, and its ability to reposition drones throughout the network allows it to adjust to spikes in demand.

“Wing’s operations require very little infrastructure and can be set up in a range of spaces, making them suitable for a wide variety of healthcare facilities,” Nash wrote in her blog post.

By mid-2024, Wing envisions its Delivery Network handling millions of deliveries for millions of customers. And it expects it to do so at a lower cost than ground transport can achieve for same-day delivery of small packages. 

In a healthcare industry where speed is key, the system’s ability to deliver in as little as three minutes has the potential to save lives. In a few months, we’ll find out exactly what it’s capable of.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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