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Alphabet's Wing drone unit inks supermarket delivery deal

Payloads stuck at just 1.5kg, but noise has been reduced

Alphabet's drone delivery outfit, Wing, has inked a deal with a major Australian supermarket chain that will see it deliver household staples – in small bundles.

The chain is called Coles and its 800-plus stores collectively earn AU$38 billion (US$28B) a year in revenue and account for almost 30 per cent of Australia's grocery market. Coles and market leader Woolworths effectively enjoy a duopoly, so focus the bulk of their marketing efforts at prising away each other's customers.

Coles yesterday trumpeted its newfound status as the first Australian supermarket to offer drone delivery.

"Whether you've run out of milk and eggs for breakfast, forgotten to pick up a loaf of bread for school lunches, or are just after a fresh 'grab and go' snack, customers in our delivery service area in Canberra can now get those urgent items they need in a hurry, delivered by drone."

The Register has covered Wing's efforts in Canberra before: in March 2020 we reported that the company had curtailed trials after residents complained about noise, and admitted that its drones' modest 1.5kg payload meant they were best-suited to small items like medicines. In 2021 we covered Canberran bird life attacking Wing drones.

What's changed now? For starters, the attacking birds' chicks have left the nest, rendering moot their motive for attacking drones. Wing has also redeveloped its drones to make them quieter.

But the 1.5kg payload has remained.

Coles' vision of delivering bread and eggs is therefore plausible – a typical loaf of supermarket bread weighs 680g in Australia, and Coles sells a dozen eggs that weigh 50g apiece.

But if you want some milk, cheese and butter to make scrambled eggs on toast, Coles will have to send two drones.

Thankfully, the supermarket's app is aware of product weights.

"Customers are notified if the items in their order exceed the weight limit," a spokesperson told The Register. "We also offer multi-cart orders, where customers may receive their order in multiple drone deliveries."

The chain has also selected the products it will ship by drone to fit within weight constraints.

The service remains, however, restricted to convenience shopping rather than an option for more substantial purchases. Its reach is also limited to seven suburbs – but without a guarantee that all homes can host a drone visit.

Wing also delivers fast food in Australia, works with an independent grocery chain that has delivered home COVID-19 tests, and has teamed with St. John Ambulance Queensland to transport first aid kits.

Coles chief executive for e-commerce Ben Hassing hailed drone service as "the next evolution in delivery technology", adding it will "support Coles's ambition to be Australia's most sustainable supermarket by reducing the number of trucks on the road.'

Left unsaid is that Canberra is famed for its open spaces – in fact it is Australia's least dense major city. It's literally and metaphorically far from the denser coastal cities typical in Australia.

So seeing as drones do actually use energy, and Canberra is an odd testbed, perhaps this service proves that drones are better vehicles for greenwashing and producing happy headlines than transporting useful quantities of foodstuffs. ®

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