BLACKSBURG — 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.