Smithsonian to display Wing aircraft used for first commercial drone deliveries to U.S. homes

Wing delivery drone No. A1229 — which helped kick off the first residential drone delivery service in the U.S. — is making its final journey today to become a part of the collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

This drone completed its historic 2.32-mile trip on October 18, 2019, delivering a winter vest to the home of Christiansburg, Virginia residents Paul and Susie Sensmeier in just 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

Two other Christiansburg families placed orders at the same time. The three drones took off in short order and flew in separate directions, autonomously passing a significant aviation milestone.

A1229 took off from Wing’s site and flew toward the northwest with the Sensmeier’s vest in collaboration with FedEx Express, No. A1286 flew west with a box of Walgreens cold medicine for the Passek-Collver family, and A1230 flew southwest with chocolates and popcorn for the Joyces from local retailer Sugar Magnolia.

For the first time ever, a drone pilot (Wing’s Ty Moyers) oversaw multiple aircraft, completing the first ever commercial drone deliveries to U.S. homes.

These flights marked the beginning of an ongoing service in Christiansburg, which continues to offer residents there a safer, faster and more efficient form of transportation.

Wing’s fleet was uniquely suited for this task, having been the first drone company certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for these kinds of commercial deliveries.

The drones each had two forward propellers that allowed them to cruise at high speeds, and 12 vertical propellers that made it possible to slow down, hover like a helicopter and deliver the packages on a tether from a safe distance about the height of a football goal post.

“It’s been incredible to watch the evolution of this technology, from an early version of this aircraft that delivered packages a few hundred meters to a fully deployed commercial service utilizing highly automated aircraft.”

– Mark Blanks, Director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership

At 10 lbs, Wing’s largely foam and plastic drones weigh 400 times less than the average car, and typically make deliveries in less than a third of the time it takes a car via delivery app. The drones fly completely autonomously, routed to specific locations, and around obstacles, by software and GPS.

All put together, that means the system is the only one capable of delivering small packages to relatively small areas right in customers’ front yards.

“It’s been incredible to watch the evolution of this technology, from an early version of this aircraft that delivered packages a few hundred meters to a fully deployed commercial service utilizing highly automated aircraft,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, an FAA-designated test site that has been working with Wing since 2016. “It’s a testament to the tremendous amount of hard work and creativity Wing put in to achieve something that no other drone company has, and that’s leading us towards a new era in aviation.”

A1229, which carried the Sensmeier’s delivery, flew up to 242 feet off the ground, reaching a cruising speed around 65 mph, with the couple’s 1.7-pound package in tow.

Now, six months later, dozens more aircraft just like A1229, A1286 and A1230 are flying back and forth across Southwest Virginia’s New River Valley on most days, delivering everything from coffee and pastries to cold medicine and toilet paper minutes after they are ordered.

“Wing is at the cusp of the automation revolution that is redefining work and commerce in the 21st century.”

– Roger Connor, Aeronautics Curator at the National Air and Space Museum

The Sensmeiers say they’re using the service even more than usual these days, as they have tried to eliminate trips outside their home. Christiansburg, like much of the rest of the world, is encouraging its residents to limit human-to-human contact in order to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. Residents across all of Wing’s sites around the world turned to drone delivery, as global orders increased fivefold in early April.

Beyond the current pandemic, millions of people may need drone delivery at any given moment. More than 61 million Americans live with a disability. Millions more take care of young children at home. Forty-three percent of Americans work from home at least part of the time. Wing’s aircraft are currently making thousands of deliveries each month worldwide. And in the coming years, we would not be surprised if they make millions more.

“The National Air and Space Museum seeks to document and preserve the technical and cultural legacies of key moments of aerospace innovation,” said Roger Connor, aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “While no one knows exactly how much autonomous delivery systems are going to shape our lives in the coming decade, Wing is at the cusp of the automation revolution that is redefining work and commerce in the 21st century.”