Drone coffee: Does it spill? Is it hot? A special investigation
I know The Canberra Times has reported on it extensively, but are there really drones delivering coffee, bread, chocolate, lightbulbs and burritos to people in Tuggeranong? I mean, really?
Has the future arrived in – of all places – Bonython?
I had so many questions about drones that I had no option but to head to the deep south and, for the very first time, order a large vanilla latte to someone's driveway.
On my list of queries: Do robots make the coffee? Who pilots the drone? Does the coffee arrive hot? And the all-important: How does it not spill? Here's what I discovered.
The Wing app looks like a simplified UberEats
Instead of just scrolling through a big list of food vendors, though, you can order lightbulbs and screws from Bunnings, Panadol and tampons from Chemist Warehouse, or a fresh loaf of multigrain from Baker's Delight.
The Wing app experience is clean and fairly seamless, but obviously still in its trial phase. I had to click three times to place my coffee order.
Only a select group of people in Bonython can order from the app (160 households are part of the trial). The Wing "testers" saw that the company – an offshoot of Google's parent company Alphabet – was moving its drone trial from rural Royalla to their suburb, and signed up instantly.
One of those was Sam Saint, a fitness instructor whose worst nightmare is packing her two small children into the car, driving to the shops, putting the kids in a trolley and walking up and down the aisles of Bunnings.
"We're definitely early adopters [of technology]," Sam says.
"I feel really lucky that Canberra's been chosen to trial technology that will eventually go global."
The coffee's made by a human
In a shipping container. On an oval. Behind the Tuggeranong Dog Training Club. (You can't make this stuff up.)
This is bleeding-edge technology people. Wing spokesman Jonathan Bass said the company chose Canberra's Kickstart Expresso as a partner for the drone trial because: a) it made great coffee, and b) it's a business that "thinks outside the box". (Kickstart opened Canberra’s first drive-thru cafe in Fyshwick – in the Good Guys carpark – in 2016.)
Kickstart Expresso owners Paul and Liat Davis agreed to be involved in the trial and quickly set up shop at the dog training centre; half a shipping container decked out with La Marzocco coffee machines, toasted sandwich presses and grills.
Kickstart employees were taught how to respond to an order, pack it safely and attach it to an allocated drone.
(FYI: There are no drone pilots. The drones are self-flying craft that use GPS to deliver safely to the front of homes.)
The drone's not loud, it's just … different
About four minutes after placing my coffee order, a drone flies over the horizon at 130km/h. It's fascinating. The noise is not loud, it's just … new. And it sounds exactly like you think it would: high-pitched whirring. If you were inside your house, I doubt you'd be able to hear it at all.
The drones are made mostly of the kind of foam you find in bicycle helmets, because the foam's light and allows the drone to stay sturdy and energy efficient. They're made in Silicon Valley, and are charged on huge charging pods behind the dog training centre in Tuggeranong.
The drone hovers a few metres above the driveway – I run to grab my package mid-air and Liam the PR guy yells at me to "stand back!" – and lowers a cardboard box that says "Happy Tuesday :)" It looks like a big brown Happy Meal box. I'm like a kid at Christmas.
The coffee's hot – and it didn't spill
Because the human barista at Kickstart put a tiny plug in the sipping holes of both the coffees, there is no spillage. Also because I ordered two large coffees, which balanced each other out in the brown package. ("What happens if you only order one coffee – won't the package be wonky?" I ask Liam. "In that case, we give you a free bottle of water to balance it out," he says.)
Sam Saint, the tester, tells me that Kickstart used to pack sugar, a spoon and a napkin with the coffees but the testers gave some feedback to Project Wing.
"It's not a takeaway coffee as such," Sam says. "I mean – it's coming directly to your home where you already have sugar and spoons.
"That's the best part of the trial – it truly is a trial. We give feedback and Wing listens."
Having friends over for dinner means ordering a fleet of drones
What if you want more than one coffee?
A drone can carry up to 1.2kg – that's two large coffees or two burritos at a time. So if you have friends or family around, like Sam often does, you need to order a fleet of drones to deliver a Mexican dinner or lattes to gossip over.
But doesn't that mean some people are sitting around with hot food while others have to wait?
"Nope," Sam says. "The drones arrive within 20 seconds of each other. One after the other after the other. We have burrito parties all the time."
The drones are headed north next. Wing plans to offer deliveries into nearby Gungahlin, Harrison, Franklin, Palmerston and Crace.
Bree Element received a coffee worth $5.30 in the research for this story.
Bree Element is the life and entertainment editor at The Canberra Times