On a bright fall day two years ago, with three short drone flights, Christiansburg, Virginia became a test case for one vision of the future of aviation.
Those three flights kicked off a drone delivery service that capped years of research and testing by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), an FAA-designated drone test site, and Wing, the drone delivery arm of Google parent company Alphabet. For anyone following the progress of drone integration in the U.S., it was a pivotal achievement. But it’s what happened in the two years since that has been the real victory for this technology, and for Virginia Tech and Wing’s approach to it.
Wing’s service in Christiansburg was the first in the U.S. to deliver goods directly to residences on demand. That made it the litmus test for whether drone delivery — a ubiquitous fixture of an imagined high-tech future — was viable in the present. Would it work? Was it safe? Would people like it?
Two years and many, many deliveries later, it’s obvious that the answer is yes.
“This was the first place in the country to have a service that’s a realistic preview of what drone delivery may look like when it’s implemented more broadly,” said Tombo Jones, MAAP’s director. “Our job is to advance drone integration in a way that’s safe, secure, and genuinely beneficial. To work with a company like Wing on the intensive research required to make a service like this possible, and see the results unfold in our own community, has been an incredibly rewarding experience.”
In Christiansburg, Mayor Mike Barber says that drone delivery has been a boon for the community not just for the convenience of having packages delivered in minutes but also for the way it positions the town in an economy shifting toward technology.
“We remain proud to have Christiansburg as the first location in the United States to have drone delivery on demand, through Wing,” he said. “The innovative technology has put Christiansburg at the forefront of drone delivery dialogue and served our citizens through a unique, safe and convenient service. Having Wing in our community means growing opportunity for the future of robotics in Southwest Virginia and the future of delivery in Christiansburg.”
Small packages traveling short distances — the proverbial “last mile” — account for a large segment of urban deliveries. For these trips, drones are generally quicker and safer than ground transportation, and have a lighter carbon footprint. A study by researchers at the Center for Economic and Community Engagement in Outreach and International Affairs found that after five years of operating in a large city, a hypothetical drone delivery service would reduce vehicle miles enough to eliminate up to 580 crashes and 113,000 tons of CO2 every year. Customers would save time, businesses would increase revenue, and social benefits like improved access to prescription medication would raise the overall quality of life in the community.
Turning that ambitious idea into a real service delivering real snacks and sunscreen and coffee in a real city meant clearing some daunting engineering and regulatory hurdles. The service in Christiansburg was made possible by tens of thousands of test flights all over the world and exhaustive testing with Virginia Tech to build up the volume of safety and performance data required to clear the high bar the FAA had set for approval of the new technology.
“The U.S. is world-renowned for its record of aviation safety, and we have that reputation for a reason,” Jones said. “Drone integration is no exception — expanding these operations is a very methodical, careful process, and Wing’s success in that rigorous regulatory environment is a testament to the power of a progressive, evidence-based approach. The operations in Christiansburg have shown just how safe drone delivery can be.”
The circumstances of the last two years have also shown just how useful it can be. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Virginia and confined people to their homes less than six months after Wing’s drones started flying, the convenience of contact-free deliveries of snacks, over-the-counter-medicine, and toilet paper suddenly started to seem even more like a public good. Orders jumped by a factor of five.
“Access to drone delivery was huge not just for the customers but for the business owners, especially in the height of the pandemic when we were in a no-contact environment,” Jones pointed out.
Wing expanded their original group of three partners — Walgreens, FedEx, and local retailer Sugar Magnolia — to include El Gran Rodeo, the Mockingbird Cafe, and Brugh Coffee. Drone delivery gave the businesses a new revenue stream that helped offset the drop in foot traffic.
They’ve worked with a school librarian to deliver books, and a local Girl Scout troop to deliver cookies. All of the new vendors on that list were added during the pandemic. Before the pandemic forced a pause on in-person group activities, Wing and MAAP regularly hosted school groups and other visitors for outreach events and STEM workshops.
The results of a public perception survey MAAP conducted about a year after the launch underscored how popular the service had been. Of the more than 800 people who responded, 87% percent said they liked drone delivery, and 89% percent said they were likely to use it (or already had). This was the first study to examine sentiment in a community that had actually experienced drone delivery, so those results portend a positive reception for the technology when it eventually rolls out more broadly. When stay-at-home orders expired and life in Christiansburg eased back towards normalcy, and Wing’s service stayed busy, it was clear: drone delivery is genuinely useful.
“Christiansburg is in many ways the birthplace of U.S. drone delivery,” said Jonathan Bass, Wing’s head of marketing and communications. “This milestone is a celebration of the community’s support, and contribution to the future of transportation.”
Wing’s success is a validation of drone delivery as a viable concept and the quality of their collaboration with Virginia Tech; it’s also an endorsement for a pair of federal programs designed to facilitate high-value drone applications like this one. The service was launched under the umbrella of the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, an initiative that smoothed the way for advances in drone operations by bringing together teams of organizations with a stake in the outcome, including companies, government agencies, research institutions like Virginia Tech, and communities. When that program wrapped up last October, a new program, called BEYOND, picked up where its predecessor left off. Advances under BEYOND, including the recent approval of fleet upgrades, continue to move drone integration forward.
Wing has a lineup of new initiatives planned for Christiansburg this fall, and they’re continuing to collaborate with Virginia Tech on major technical and operational challenges that need to be solved to enable drone delivery — and the drone industry in general — to reach its potential.
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the Christiansburg program established a springboard for Wing, which also operates in Australia and Finland, to broaden and diversify their U.S. operations. The company has indicated that it has plans to expand in the U.S. soon, and just unveiled a new version of their service in which the drone will fly to a customer’s home directly from a retailer’s site instead of a central Wing facility — a more distributed model optimized for sprawling cities.
Jones, who moved to Blacksburg just after an early series of Wing trials that tested their system by delivering burritos to students and faculty, reflects on the extraordinary progress that’s unfolded in a famously cautious industry.
“When I got here, all everyone was talking about was how incredible the burrito delivery was,” he said. “And now these deliveries are routine. You have to be an optimist in this industry, because when you’re dealing with regulation, visible change can be very slow. Commercial jets can take decades to get through the approval process. I’m very proud that we’ve helped pioneer a new way for people to interact with aviation that lives up to our tradition of rigor and safety but has, in a remarkably short amount of time, really enhanced the lives of people in our community.”