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Drones Delivering Medical Supplies in Christiansburg

The drone carries a three-pound plastic package, attached by a cord and a hook. It lowers the package until it softly touches down on the turf. The hook detaches, the line is reeled back in, and the craft zooms off into the horizon at 70 mph.

“There’s been no complaints that I know of from the neighborhood, and there’s quite a few customers that live here,” says Paul, a retired engineer who knows a thing or two about innovations in technology. His son works as an aerospace engineer, and his son-in-law is a researcher at the nearby Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “It is the wave of the future, and it’s exciting to be a part of the developmental process.”

In fact, the Sensameirs became part of aviation history in October, when Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet (aka Google), delivered a winter fleece vest they’d ordered from Dick’s Sporting Goods. A FedEx truck delivered it to Wing’s launching station, the Nest, and the drone brought the package the last two miles. It was the first-ever commercial drone delivery to a customer’s doorstep in the U.S. Wing has been making deliveries within a three-mile radius — the distance allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration — ever since.

Wing chose Christiansburg (population 22,500) as its first launching site for American commercial operations — it’s also testing in Australia and Finland — not only because of the relatively flat terrain and low population density, but because of nearby Virginia Tech University, a leading facility for unmanned drone research.

“This is a great place to build synergy,” says Mark Blanks, director of Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), which played a key role in helping Wing obtain from the FAA its unmanned flight flight license to make commercial deliveries. “Most importantly, we live in this community, and we have a vested interest in making this a positive relationship.”

“The pace of UAS [unmanned aircraft system] integration will be determined by the combined ability of industry, the operator community, and the FAA to adopt a proactive, collaborative approach,” FAA spokesperson Eva Lee Ngai says in an email to Input. “We’re working to assure that drones are safely integrated into that system so our society can reap the benefits of drone technology while still allowing other airspace users to continue their traditional operations.”

Wing is currently looking at other sites across the U.S., and future partnerships may lead to coffee and restaurant deliveries, which are already happening in Australia, according to Alexa Dennett, head of marketing and communications for Wing.

The future could also lead to home services outside of the realm of retail. “Let’s say you left your sweater at a friend’s house,” Dennett says. “You won’t have to hop in your car, pick up the sweater and go back home again. You could send a drone instead.”

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