Before we dig in, I want you to take a moment to imagine a commercial drone operator. Where are they? What are they wearing? Are they holding anything?
Let me guess: you’re imagining a person standing outside with their eyes on the sky, a high visibility vest on their back and a set of joysticks under their thumbs.
Wing has begun launching some of the United States’ first commercial drone delivery Remote Operations Centers. We started at our headquarters in Palo Alto, California, and recently opened a second in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Our Pilots in Command (or PICs) stationed in these remote locations are not focused on one aircraft, but instead they’re overseeing multiple simultaneous flights across entire service areas.
This is possible because of the highly automated and reliable nature of our system. Individual flights do not require human interaction, as our flight navigation system plans its own routes, and then the aircraft execute those routes. The system performs its own health checks, flags issues if they arise, and responds to contingencies as needed. That frees up Wing’s operators to oversee the entire system across large areas and many drones.
The day-in-a-life at these Remote Operations Centers looks a lot like an air traffic control center. Our PICs are in an office in a central location that allows them to cover multiple time zones. When they go on duty, they may be handling flights in Virginia or Texas. Flights are completed through automation, while the operators monitor the entire system and respond only as needed. When a situation requires hands-on intervention (like repositioning a drone on its charging pad), Ground Support Operators are based in each service area and can be quickly dispatched to an aircraft’s location.
The PICs aren’t watching through the camera of any drones (there is not a live feed of imagery to anyone, anywhere), or controlling aircraft with a joystick (the system designs its own routes and flies itself). Instead they’re watching our aircraft complete missions, they’re monitoring weather and other air traffic, the overall health of the system, and responding to alerts if they pop up.
Drone technology represents one of the most exciting advancements we’ve seen in this industry recently. It’s not very often that we get to form an entirely new type of aviation career, but that’s exactly what’s happening in this space today.
We’re just getting started with this new operating model, and it will take time for it to expand across the industry. With the technology that we’ve built, we can leverage the talent of a human operator to manage ever-greater areas of responsibility. As drone delivery grows, I believe we’ll need more Remote Operations Facilities like these, and that’s going to create some interesting new career opportunities for all types of aviation enthusiasts.