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Virginia town becomes home to nation’s first drone package delivery service

A Wing drone hovers at about 23 feet before lowering a package to the ground by tether in Christiansburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times/AP)

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — Retirees Susie and Paul Sensmeier stood outside of their front door Friday, watching as a small drone zipped over their neighborhood and headed for their rambler.

The aircraft — operated by Wing, an offshoot of Google’s parent company — approached with a high-pitched whine, hovered in the clear sky above their front lawn and gently lowered a FedEx box containing a new puffy vest for Susie.

Across the street, a senior FedEx executive looked on. He’d brought his children to watch, he said, history being made.

Drones have delivered medical samples and burritos in the United States before, but Friday’s deliveries were a milestone for a burgeoning industry. The companies involved in the drop at the Sensmeiers’ home and others to families nearby were the first to make commercial deliveries to homes.

“I love new things,” Susie Sensmeier, 81, said after the drone had departed for Wing’s base in a nearby business park. “New technology. A new vest. New experiences. You don’t get a lot of those at my age.”

Established delivery companies and start-ups alike have been promising to deliver packages by drone for years, but strict rules governing U.S. airspace have hampered their ambitions. This spring, though, Wing and then a UPS subsidiary received the clearances they needed from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Drone company Wing gets ‘air carrier’ approval from FAA, allowing deliveries that will launch in Virginia

“There’s been a lot of talk about drones. Today, we’re actually doing it. We’re actually delivering an e-commerce order to someone’s doorstep,” said Richard W. Smith, the FedEx executive. “This is not vaporware. This is real. It’s here today.”

In the drone industry, people often talk about a “crawl, walk, run” approach to getting unmanned aircraft safely flying alongside planes and helicopters. Jay Merkle, head of the FAA’s drone integration office, said the industry has now crossed into walking, prodded in part by a 2017 directive issued by President Trump. Running, Merkle said, will be when projects like the one in Christiansburg can be scaled across the country.

That still looks to be a ways off.

Clearing Wing to operate for what it is still calling a trial required painstaking work to figure out how to apply to drones rules written years ago with airplanes and helicopters in mind. The company remains bound by strict limits on its operations.

Pilots groups have been carefully watching the process, formally lodging safety concerns with the FAA. And while the mayor of Christiansburg said Wing has been welcomed to the town, a proposal by Uber to launch a drone food delivery service in San Diego has been met with local opposition over noise concerns.

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In recent written comments to the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association International, complained that the internal manuals Wing relies on to demonstrate that it can operate safely are proprietary and so can’t be assessed by the public. The far-reaching scope of exemptions from flight rules that Wing has sought, the group wrote, “appears to erode the safety levels established by the FAA.”

But the FAA says it needs the data gathered from early operations to decide how to write any future rules — doing otherwise, Merkle said, would “completely stifle innovation.”

Tom McMahon, a spokesman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone advocacy organization, said that progress has been slower than the industry would like but that meaningful steps forward have been made in recent months. He said he expects that customers will come to appreciate the speedy delivery made possible by hoisting packages through the air.

“It’s like anything else we’ve seen with technology,” he said. “We don’t appreciate what it provides to us until it starts performing the service.”

Susie Sensmeier, who agreed to take part in Friday’s event after attending a Wing demo a few weeks ago, said she wished she had had access to Wing’s service in the summer when her husband was recovering from a broken leg. Walgreens, which is also participating in the project by offering a list of 100 products for sale, including over-the-counter medical goods, snacks and drinks, is pitching it as a boon to parents with sick kids.

The idea in Christiansburg, a town of about 22,500 where Wing set up shop in partnership with nearby Virginia Tech, is for customers to be able to use an app on their phone to place an order and get a delivery within about 10 minutes.

The drone that arrived at the Sensmeiers’ had departed from a base that Wing calls a nest, about a mile away. Built from artfully arranged gray shipping containers, the nest is like a slice of Silicon Valley tucked behind a Mexican restaurant and a bar in small-town Virginia.

Inside, about a dozen of the drones sit on launchpads where their batteries can be charged.

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The drones are made of the same kind of foam used in bicycle helmets and fly using a combination of 12 helicopter-like rotors and two wing-mounted propellers. A single pilot can monitor up to five of the autonomous aircraft from a control booth inside one of the shipping containers. Observers who monitor the air are stationed around town.

From the nest, the drone travels at speeds up to 65 mph and can carry three-pound packages to homes within about 3½ miles. When it arrives, the drone lowers the package, nestling it on the ground.

Hundreds of potential customers have signed up, a Wing spokeswoman said.

Christiansburg Mayor Michael Barber said Wing had done a good job of being visible in the community, showing up at street festivals and markets, where the company has been flooded with interest.

“It’s one of the more exciting innovations to come our way in a while,” said Barber, a retired banker and veteran of town politics. “I’ve not heard any complaints whatsoever.”

Wing isn’t charging for deliveries, and unlike UPS, Uber and Amazon, the other companies that have obtained or are publicly known to be seeking approval to deliver packages by drones, it’s not already in the delivery business. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess said the company will succeed by forming partnerships with businesses big and small — one of its partners in Christiansburg is a local sweet shop — offering them faster, cheaper deliveries than going by ground.

“Drone technology has the potential to be radically lower cost,” Burgess said.

Asked why FedEx looked for outside help while UPS has pursued its program in-house, Smith said his company’s expertise is not in building drones. Ultimately, Smith said, he expects drones to complement the company’s existing drivers, potentially hauling the one package that can’t be neatly fit into an efficient ground route.

“We believe that Wing had a technology that was ahead of other drone technologies,” he said. “The proof’s in the pudding. We’re out here delivering packages. Others are just talking about it.”

While the development of self-driving cars and trucks — the other major technology poised to change the country’s transportation system — has been marked in many ways by the absence of federal rules, would-be drone operators have had to contend with the strict control the FAA imposes over the nation’s skies.

Over the past half-decade, the agency has gradually found ways to allow unmanned aircraft to undertake increasingly sophisticated operations.

FAA clears UPS to expand drone use for medical supply delivery

Wing and UPS now have certification as commercial air carriers, leading UPS to bill itself as the first “drone airline” when its approval was granted this month. UPS is conducting deliveries of medical samples at a hospital campus in North Carolina and carried out a run immediately upon getting its new approval, laying claim to a first of its own.

“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” UPS chief executive David Abney said in a statement at the time.

In practice, though, both companies are still required to adhere to a lengthy set of limits even as they’ve been granted waivers from some FAA rules.

Some changes were straightforward: Wing’s small drone won’t need to carry pilot manuals on board, for example. Other issues have been more contentious: Wing sought to relax the medical certificate requirements for its pilots and to allow pilots to switch over while the drones were in the air, but the FAA rejected those ideas in a decision issued this month.

Merkle said he expects that the relationship between regulators and operators will continue to evolve, calling the work with Wing and UPS a “tremendous learning experience.”

“We are learning to apply to existing regulations in a very innovative way to maintain the safety our communities expect,” he said.