Working at Wing’s delivery drone command center is pretty similar to being an air traffic controller, except it’s drones carrying things like toothpaste, and not planes with hundreds of people. So way, way fewer lives are at stake.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on inside a delivery drone command center, or haven’t at all, Wing is giving a look behind the scenes and a day in the life of a commercial drone operator. Perhaps you’re picturing someone in Top Gun sunglasses, an orange vest, and waving batons as drones lift off all around them and onlookers mutter, “Godspeed.”
But it’s more like a desk with multiple screens featuring a rudimentary flight simulator, which doesn’t let you fly. At its newest facility in Dallas-Fort Worth metro area (where it operates deliveries for Walgreens, among others), the pilots oversee multiple simultaneous flights across entire service areas in Texas, Virginia, and as far as Australia.
Much of the process is automated and there’s actually very little human interaction with the drones, except the part when they’re loaded up. When an order comes in, a partner employee attaches the payload at the “nest,” which is where the drones sit, charge, and shoot the breeze while they wait for their orders (a Pixar film about this seems inevitable).
Once that payload is attached (aluminum foil or condoms or whatever the person ordered), the flight navigation system plans its own routes, and then the drone sets off, travelling to a destination in about a four to six mile radius.
Back at the command center they have a view of the nest as the drones lift off, but they’re not flying them with joysticks or anything (“Pull up!”), and not seeing a live feed through their onboard cameras that feels like flying.
Instead, the pilots are watching little drone icons as they complete the deliveries on a GPS map, keeping abreast of inclement weather, and making sure the drones don’t slam into each other like two waiters at a busy restaurant.
While hands-on intervention is rare, a ground support team is available to be dispatched to the drone’s location, in case it needs repositioning on a charging pad or tries to go to space.
The whole process is a more complicated version of when you’re watching your pizza move closer to your house in a delivery app pizza tracker. But in that case, lives are clearly at stake.