Virginia Tech – The future of delivery

A small crowd was gathered on the lawn in a neighborhood outside Blacksburg, squinting up into to the sunlight as a drone zoomed into view over the treeline and hovered above the grass.

A tidy, aerodynamic brown trapezoid descended on a tether and settled on the ground, and the drone headed back the way it came.

Inside the package, popsicles and cups of ice cream were still cold.

The entire sequence — from the taps and swipes in the app that summoned the drone to its departure from the yard — took less than eight minutes. The seamlessness of the process belied the significance of the flight: This backyard popsicle drop-off represented the most advanced tests of drone delivery ever conducted in the U.S. and a milestone in a new federal initiative, called the UAS Integration Pilot Program, designed to smooth the way for drones to safely occupy the airspace.

Package delivery will probably create some of the most direct interactions between commercial drone operations and the general public. Until now, though, there’s been a considerable gulf between the limited testing permitted by U.S. regulations and widespread package delivery by drone. These flights, by drone-delivery company Wing, narrow the gap.

The demonstration successfully incorporated two critical features: aircraft flown over populated areas and beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. Because those characteristics introduce additional challenges, they’re only allowed under waivers to the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations. Wing was granted waivers for both types of flights, thanks to tens of thousands of flights at private facilities in the U.S. and hundreds of home deliveries in Australia that yielded enough data to demonstrate that their system could clear those hurdles safely.

Those capabilities were just part of what made the demonstration notable. The operation also showcased an entire ecosystem of supporting technologies that will be crucial to more widespread drone use — for example, software that allows members of the community to identify a drone flying nearby.

Wing is one of the members of Virginia’s IPP team, which is run by the Center for Innovative Technology and managed by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

“The ability to demonstrate this level of technological and operational sophistication this early in the IPP is a testament to the strength of Virginia’s team, and a signal that the commonwealth will have a significant role in the collaborative push to advance safe, productive drone integration,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who has long been a staunch proponent of unmanned systems research in the commonwealth and lent his support to Virginia’s IPP application.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done to establish Virginia as a hub for research and policy in this area, and I look forward to seeing the IPP team build on that momentum,” he said.

One of the program’s goals is to pull together groups with a stake in how drones are incorporated into the airspace: the companies developing applications for the technology, the regulatory agencies responsible for crafting policies, and the state and local governments advocating for their constituents.

Many of them were in the audience for Wing’s demonstration, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), local county government representatives, and state legislators and staff — watching a pivotal moment in drone integration unfold.

“This is something we’ve never seen before in the U.S: a delivery in real time to a private residence, with waivers for two of the most crucial enablers for our industry,” said Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director. “Commercial drone delivery is going to be viable only if we prove that these aircraft can safely fly beyond the line of sight, routinely travelling over roads and people. With this test, thanks to the incredible work by our partners, the FAA, and numerous other stakeholders, we’re decisively on our way.”

Wing has been working with Virginia Tech since 2016, when they famously delivered Chipotle lunches along a stretch of the Smart Road at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. But this demonstration was the first time that the company, freshly graduated from Alphabet’s “moonshot factory,” X, has delivered goods to U.S. homes.

“This technology is real and it’s ready; it can deliver a small package very quickly and safely and with scarcely any impact on the environment,” said James Ryan Burgess, Wing’s CEO. “Our aircraft could be used to deliver food and medicines, respond to emergencies, and in a seemingly endless variety of other ways. Through the IPP program we hope to engage communities, their local representatives, and law enforcement to make sure our technology meets their needs and addresses any concerns they may have about it. We’re grateful to the FAA and the DOT for creating this opportunity to have those conversations.”
In the weeks preceding the demonstration, while the operations team was setting up the launch site and running test flights, Blanks and other MAAP staff were giving an overview of the project to local government groups and knocking on doors in the neighborhood where the package deliveries would touch down. The responses were almost uniformly positive.

“Most people wanted to know when drone deliveries could come to their houses, too,” Blanks said.

That won’t happen quite yet — a broad commercial rollout is still in the future, and Blanks emphasized that the scope of the project will expand incrementally. “It’s a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach,” he said.

But now we’ve had a preview.