Finally, FINALLY(!) a full-fledged delivery program is coming to the U.S., by way of Fedex.
Project Wing, the drone delivery arm spun out of the company formerly known as Google, is set to start making drone deliveries in October in partnership with Fedex, as well as Walgreens and a small retailer called Sugar Magnolia.
To call it a ‘full-fledged delivery program’ (Wing’s words) is still a bit of a stretch, as it will only be available to residents “who live within designated delivery zones” of Christiansburg, Virginia, a small town on the west side of the state.
But if you do, you’re in luck, as the trials will be the first in the U.S. with regular customers, not highly curated groups of people based on pre-planned deliveries (Project Wing in the past has done U.S. trials that were a bit more orchestrated, such as Chipotle burrito deliveries also in Virginia. It was a nifty media stunt, but the drones never flew beyond line of sight — just up a hill — and the customers were a pre-selected group of people associated with Virginia Tech).
Christiansburg residents can sign up to be a part of the program here.
Project Wing’s Fedex Deliveries
If you’ve got something arriving via Fedex, there’s a chance it could arrive via drone. FedEx Express customers who live within designated delivery zones in Christiansburg (and who opt in to the Wing delivery service) will be able to receive some packages via delivery drone. Wing didn’t specify what packages would be eligible, but it would likely be smaller, lighter items that fit within their customized drone delivery box. The Fedex deliveries will be made directly to the homes of intended recipients.
Project Wing’s Walgreens Deliveries
Order over-the-counter medicines and select other health and wellness items from Walgreens, and if you live in Christiansburg, you can choose to have them delivered on-demand. If successful, this would make Walgrerens the first retail pharmacy to offer drone delivery in the U.S. Wing said your items would arrive within minutes of ordering.
Project Wing’s Sugar Magnolia Deliveries
It’s not just big businesses getting in on Google’s drone delivery action. Sugar Magnolia, which is a locally-owned, combination ice cream-coffee-book-gift shop, will also allow customers to order some of its items.
Virginia is far from new to drone innovation. Christiansburg has been a part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program in part because of an existing Wing partnership with Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), located in nearby Blacksburg. The Virginia deliveries will likely resemble the extensive testing it has already been doing in Australia (Wing says it has made more than 70,000 test flights, and more than 3,000 deliveries to doorsteps, driveways and backyards in Australia)., when it delivered food and over-the-counter pharmaceutical goods to Canberra residents.
While 2013 was the hype year for drone delivery after Bezos shocked the world by announcing that Amazon would be delivering packages via drone (they’re currently not doing that in the U.S., at least on a public scale), 2019 has shaped up to be the year that the wheels are actually moving on drone delivery.
Wing saw a breakthrough this past April after the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the first air carrier certification to Wing Aviation. Other drone delivery companies have seen their own breakthroughs in 2019. Zipline announced in April that it would open the first of four distribution centers in Ghana, as part of a drone-delivery network that is expected to eventually serve 2,000 hospitals and clinics covering 12 million people. California-based Zipline already operates in other countries including Tanzania and Rwanda. And drone delivery company Matternet received permission to make drone deliveries on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC.
What needs to happen for drone delivery to go from trial to full-scale deliveries?
The tl;dr is: a number of things. There’s the psychological — getting people to accept the noise or the idea of something flying over and leaving packages at their houses.
But there’s also the technical (not in building the drones), but in the augmenting technology. It’s enough to make your eyes glaze over, but here are a few standout reasons why drone deliveries, while available to the general public, are only happening in small, contained areeas.
Remote ID: Cars have license plates, and if millions of drones are flying around, they’ll need license plates too. The problem is: a teeny license plate on a drone flying through the air is nearly impossible to read. That is, unless you have an “electronic license plate” that can be “read” from the ground. Wing itself is working on its own type of license plates along with other companies like Kitthyhawk and AirMap to test what they call Remote ID.
DJI has also made its own proposals around electronic drone license plates.
Drone traffic management: If hundreds of autonomous drones are flying through the air, they’ll have to know where the other is headed to avoid crashes. A number of entities are working on systems of air traffic management for drones, but Wing itself is working on its own. This summer, Wing released an app called OpenSky, designed for anyone (hobbyist or commercial operator) who flies drones in Australia to help them manage their flights and the first in its own series of steps to plan flight paths.