By contrast, Wingcopter’s cargo machine was built to haul three small boxes on its undercarriage and control when and where each parcel is lowered to the ground. The company’s “triple drop” delivery system might help optimize courier workflows so people get their goods faster and cheaper.
It could also cut down on the labor required to oversee fleets of delivery drones, according to Tom Plümmer, Wingcopter’s chief executive.
“Today, in order to deploy three packages at one time, companies would have to buy or lease three drones,” Plümmer said. “Price-wise, you’re not going to want to have three of them when you can have one. And no one wants thousands of drones flying above their heads.”
The start-up’s new device is central to its broader vision of providing drones to firms seeking ways to distribute hot meals, groceries, medical supplies or other lightweight goods. It was created to “power logistical highways in the sky,” Plümmer said.
The company says the eight-rotor air vehicle is capable of level-four autonomy, which means it is mostly autonomous but requires a human for some tasks.
It has a 5.8-foot wingspan and measures under 4.5 feet from nose to tail. It is built around the Wingcopter’s patented tilt-rotor system, which allows it to take off vertically like a helicopter, fly in a fixed-wing position like an airplane, hover if it needs to, and land vertically. The drone uses wireless networks to communicate with flight controllers and has a visual artificial intelligence system and sensors to avoid nearby objects.
The aircraft relies on downward-facing cameras to find a safe place to release packages, and it can lower them to the ground in a matter of seconds, the company says.
Wingcopter also developed corresponding software that allows one flight controller to remotely monitor up to 10 drones flying anywhere in the world.
When carrying its maximum payload of 13 pounds, the Wingcopter 198 can travel more than 47 miles before requiring a recharge. It can be configured to carry three smaller packages, two medium-sized boxes or one large box. It can travel up to 68 miles with lighter packages and has a top speed of 93 miles per hour, Wingcopter says.
The start-up began accepting reservations Tuesday for its first 100 units. The electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicle can cost up to six figures if bought outright, Plümmer said. Companies can also lease the drones. Wingcopter is building a factory outside Frankfurt, Germany, to produce its drones in the coming months.
Although Wingcopter hasn’t received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, the company moved a step closer to achieving that goal last year when it was named one of 10 companies in the United States to meet the FAA’s “airworthiness” criteria for drones more complex than the consumer versions available online. The drone software company Flirtey and the delivery firm Zipline also were among the companies edging toward sending delivery aircraft weighing under 89 pounds into the skies.
In 2019, UPS and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, received federal approval to test delivering some packages by drone in the United States. Last year, Amazon was granted privileges to “safely and efficiently deliver packages to customers” by drone. The e-commerce platform says it has Prime Air development centers in the United States and promises to one day “deliver packages to customers around the world in 30 minutes or less.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
While Wingcopter awaits further FAA clearances, the company is primarily focused on delivering medical supplies to hard-to-reach places. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the company distributed vaccines by air in Africa and Southeast Asia, while other companies such as Draganfly and Volansi worked to deliver temperature-sensitive vaccines in the United States.
Wingcopter plans for larger drones to carry larger payloads in the future. It may even become an air taxi company one day, Plümmer said.
“We hope to scale the drones to one day carry humans. But we believe that’s 10 years down the line,” Plümmer said.