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Google-backed drones will drop library books so kids in Virginia can do their summer reading

Wing, the tech giant’s sister company, will deliver them to students in the state’s Montgomery County School District.

Kelly Passek, a librarian at Montgomery County School District, thought up the idea to deliver library books by drone to encourage more kids to read and still observe social distancing. Alphabet company Wing will deliver the books in Christiansburg, Va. (Wing)

Kelly Passek has thought up a way to get kids to read this summer: deliver library books by drone.

Passek, a middle-school librarian, was one of the first customers of a drone delivery service launched in Christiansburg, Va., last year by Wing, a company owned by Google parent Alphabet. After seeing how quickly her household goods and meals were delivered, she petitioned the company to take on library books, too. The company said yes, and the first books fly out this week.

“I think kids are going to be just thrilled to learn that they are going to be the first in the world to receive a library book by drone,” said Passek, who works for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Drone delivery has been an anticipated promise from tech companies since Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos showed off a surprise prototype during a “60 Minutes” interview in 2013. Other companies jumped on the bandwagon shortly after, but nearly seven years later, the service is only available in limited tests in a few areas of the world, bogged down by regulatory hurdles. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Domino’s partnered with drone company Flirtey to deliver a pizza by drone in New Zealand in 2016, but the service hasn’t taken flight outside the country. And UPS received federal approval to test delivering some packages by drone in the United States last year.

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Wing received federal approval last year to deliver by drone in Virginia, beating Amazon’s Prime Air to the public testing milestone. The company also delivers packages, which can weigh up to about three pounds, in Helsinki and two Australian cities.

The tests serve relatively small numbers of people and expansion plans in the United States hinge on the Federal Aviation Administration approval.

Wing started delivering household goods and meals from Walgreens and local restaurants to a limited area of the southwest Virginia town that covers several thousand homes last October.

A Virginia librarian thought up the idea to deliver library books by drone to encourage more children to read while social distancing. (Video: Wing)

The company has seen a jump in demand during the pandemic as people are increasingly staying home and avoiding crowded spaces like grocery stores, said Keith Heyde, head of Virginia operations for Wing. The company reached a high of 1,000 deliveries globally in a single week this spring, he said.

Heyde, whose mom is a librarian, noted that Wing had already brought on more local merchants during the pandemic, and the company wanted to help kids get books as well.

Passek began pushing for book delivery last fall as soon as she saw how quickly her Wing orders were being flown to her house. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and her cause became more immediate.

Wing will start delivering books to students of the school district this week, given they live in the company’s Christiansburg delivery area. Passek is doing much of the work on the back end — she’ll receive students’ book orders via a Google Form, seek out the book from any of the district’s libraries, package it up, and bring it to Wing’s facility to deliver.

Passek has already helped students get books this spring after they were sent home from school to finish the year remotely because of stay-at-home orders. District librarians sent library books to students’ homes on school buses that made daily rounds to bring breakfast and lunch to every district student.

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Now the school year is over and that book delivery program has ended. It’s time for the drones.

Students aren’t able to visit school libraries during the summer months anyway, but the pandemic has made it especially hard for many families to keep getting free reading material until public libraries reopen. Wing’s library book delivery service is available to any of the roughly 600 students in the district who live in the delivery area. They won’t have to return the books until school starts up again in the fall, Passek said.

“I’m hoping that we get our students that are already readers and students who are thinking its going to be really excellent to get books delivered by drone,” she said.