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First long-distance, residential drone delivery touches down

August 9, 2018

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — It took eight minutes from the time a woman hit order on a mobile app until one of Wing’s drones traversed 1.4 miles and came buzzing overhead on Tuesday afternoon with a package of ice cream and other frozen treats in tow.

Jackson Smith trotted into his yard to retrieve the cardboard box, and like that, the 2-year-old from rural Montgomery County became the recipient of the most advanced drone package delivery to ever occur in the United States, according to those who conducted Tuesday’s operation.

Until now, Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent corporation Alphabet, hasn’t been allowed to fly long distances, over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight. That changed when Virginia was selected as one of 10 areas to participate in an experimental program that would lower barriers on the technology.

Wing showed off what it could do with those new rules on Tuesday, and the result was an ice pop lowered directly to Jackson’s yard in under 10 minutes.

“You did see something historic today,” Earl Lawrence, director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, said. “They can share the fact that the U.S. does have package delivery in its future.”

The event was a demonstration of the kind of service Wing hopes to launch on a larger scale soon. The company is planning a major outreach campaign before the service becomes commercially available to actual customers.

According to the state’s application for the UAS Integration Pilot Program, Virginia proposed three areas for package delivery through a partnership with Wing: Wise County, Montgomery and Roanoke counties and Loudoun County.

Organizers have stressed that the list is subject to change, but Wing intends to launch the country’s first drone delivery service that would reach real customers in residential neighborhoods as part of the program.

James Burgess, CEO of Wing, said the company is still gauging interest from localities before it decides when and where the service will be available. The company is only going to go where it’s wanted, he said, but the plan is for the full launch to happen “in the near term.”

For now, Wing and Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) have set up a “nest” — a sort of parking lot for drones — at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm located along the New River about seven miles from downtown Blacksburg.

The company stressed it is only conducting demonstrations of the technology there for now and has not yet launched a commercial package delivery service.

Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Tuck said he has heard concern from locals who are worried that drones are going to hover over their homes with privacy-invading cameras. He said demonstrations like he saw this week will help clear up some of the misinformation. He added that the program has unanimous support from the county’s elected board of supervisors.

“I don’t know how this is going to develop,” Tuck said. “I don’t know that the Wright brothers knew how the airlines were going to develop. But that’s what we could be experiencing, and I want us to be on the leading edge of that.”

Tuesday’s event also offered a rare glimpse into technology that has been in Google and Alphabet’s labs for six years, but is only now becoming accessible by the public.

Burgess said the aircrafts each weigh around 10 pounds and can carry packages up to three pounds. The range is six miles for now and the company doesn’t fly in inclement weather — but engineers hope to improve that performance.

The body of the aircraft is made largely of foam, with 12 propellers to offer vertical lift like a helicopter and two horizontal propellers that allow it to fly around 85 mph.

Wing and the MAAP invited The Roanoke Times, along with local, state and federal elected officials to watch the system in action Tuesday.

It begins when a customer uses a mobile app to select items, checkout and pay. Burgess said that alerts the vendor, which could be anything from a local restaurant to a convenience store. Employees there load the box and then scan a barcode when it’s ready for delivery.

“When the merchant scans the package, that’s what initiates the aviation side,” Burgess explained.

Wing’s automated system begins checking the airspace for other aircraft and no-fly zones. It finds the landing zone and plans a route. The drones, meanwhile, wait on charging pads outside.

The computer chooses which drone is ready for the flight. Then it takes off and flies autonomously while a human pilot stands by in case a an intervention is necessary.

The drone flies from the nest to the merchant. A worker there hooks the package onto a string dangling from the drone. The package is drawn up and the drone continues on to the final destination.

But the customer doesn’t see any of that.

From Jackson’s perspective, his mom hit the order button and within minutes he had an ice pop in hand — and a yard full of onlookers there to watch the feat.

“Previously we’ve only been able to operate in test locations or under very restricted sets of operations, unable to go into residential communities to perform deliveries,” Burgess said. “So today we saw our first residential deliveries in an uncontrolled environment.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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