Google lost a food delivery drone when it tried to land on a power line and got incinerated

Alphabet food delivery company Wing has a spotless safety record. Well, it did until yesterday when one of its autonomous drones landed on some power lines. Nobody was hurt in the incident, but the drone was incinerated, and about 2,000 customers lost power briefly.

On Thursday, a food delivery drone in Australia struck an 11,000-volt power line, caught fire, and cut power to around 2,000 homes and businesses in the area. The drone belonged to Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Local utility company Energex said that power was only interrupted for about 45 minutes because workers did not have to remove the drone from the lines.

“We didn’t actually have to get the drone off, as such, it actually caught fire and incinerated itself,” Energex spokesman Danny Donald told The Age.

He later told ABC News, “The meal was still hot inside the drone’s delivery box when the crew got there.” Not an astonishing revelation, considering the drone was on fire.

Wing claimed that the drone needed to make a “precautionary controlled landing” and inadvertently came down on the powerlines. The Wing spokesperson said the company immediately notified Energex of the mishap and apologized. The swift notification also contributed to the short duration of the outage.

Wing opened an internal investigation to determine what led to the incident. The drone was autonomous, so the accident was not directly caused by human error. However, if Wing can figure out why the navigation system didn’t see the powerlines, it could help improve the algorithms to avoid them.

Energex said it would not seek damages since the only damage was to Wing’s property –the powerlines and grid were unscathed other than the short interruption. However, the energy provider used the incident as a warning to recreational drone operators, especially children.

“Fifteen years ago, we asked people to be careful if they were giving their children kites for Christmas and where they were flying them,” Donald said. “Now we’re asking parents to be very careful with where their kids fly their drones.”

Google started its drone delivery project in 2014 –one year before restructuring and creating the Alphabet holding company. In 2016, Wing partnered with Chipotle in Virginia for limited trials. In 2017, it began tests in Australia, delivering pharmaceuticals and burritos. Alphabet got FAA approval to deliver goods in the US in 2019. By August 2022, Alphabet claimed it was on track to have 100,000 delivery drones deployed before September.

In all that time, this is the first reported mishap involving a Wing delivery drone.