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Drone delivery set to land in Blacksburg and Christiansburg this year in a U.S. first

Drone delivery set to land in Blacksburg and Christiansburg this year in a U.S. first

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James Burgess, CEO of Wing, holds one of the company’s drones prior to an August delivery flight demonstration in Montgomery County.

Blacksburg and Christiansburg residents will soon be the first in the U.S. to order drone deliveries to their homes, courtesy of Google sister company Wing.

The details are yet to be announced, such as exactly where the drones will fly and what they’ll carry. But the company said Tuesday that commercial drone deliveries are coming to the U.S. this year – and that will start in the New River Valley.

Wing CEO James Burgess said his team is looking now at potential staging sites for the drones and local businesses that may want to sell products through the service. The drones have a six-mile range, so the staging area — known as the nest — will determine who is able to signup for deliveries.

The company plans to talk with locals over the next couple of months to hear what they want – and what they don’t want.

“There’s going to be a lot of learning for us as well, since this is a first of its kind and nobody really knows specifically the best applications,” Burgess said. “We think it’s actually in partnership with the community that we’ll find those answers together.”

Wing has previously offered commercial drone deliveries in Australia, where regulators warmed to the concept sooner than in the U.S.

There, Wing has partnered with restaurants, pharmacies and convenience stores.

A customer places an order on a mobile app and pays a delivery fee, sending a fully autonomous drone into motion. The aircraft leaves the nest, picks up the package, flies to the customer’s home and lowers the package to the grass within minutes.

Wing has also conducted demonstrations on Virginia Tech-owned land, most famously with drone-delivered burritos in 2016 and later for media and politicians at Kentland Farm.

But those were closed demonstrations to show off the technology, not a full-fledged delivery business like the company is launching now.

Previously, Wing has requested waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow these flights. In order to sell real products to real customers, Wing needed an Air Carrier Certification. That happened Monday, marking the first time a drone delivery company was cleared for takeoff by the FAA.

“That is sort of the final piece of the puzzle for us to be able to operate commercially,” Burgess said.

He touts a long list of benefits to delivering via air instead of roadway, from environmental to speed and safety.

Burgess hopes the technology is one day ubiquitous, but for now he recognizes a small aircraft hovering overhead is a new experience prone to raise questions and discomfort.

That’s why Wing is starting small and seeking comments to inform larger rollouts in the future.

When the company launched in the Australian community of Bonython, some residents there said the drones were loud enough to wake them up in the morning and disturb wildlife in the afternoon.

In response, Wing reworked flight paths, travel speeds and developed a new propeller that Burgess said is less disruptive. Without the complaints, he added noise wouldn’t have been an area the company would have known to invest.

Wing is looking for similar feedback from its Montgomery County service. And so with that distinction of being the first in the U.S., comes the quandary of being a guinea pig.

“When you can apply this technology to real communities you get real answers and real sensitivities and concerns from people. That allows us to be better, to make the technology better to make our service better,” Burgess said. “We’re really excited to have the local communities there [Christiansburg and Blacksburg] be a part of what really is shaping the future – quite literally.”

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