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Christiansburg to be part of national aviation history

Christiansburg to be part of national aviation history

MG Wing Delivery 101819

Wing drone A1229, which delivered a winter vest to a Christiansburg address, is on its way to the Smithsonian.

The drone that carried the first commercial residential delivery of its kind in the U.S. will soon be displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Wing, a Google sister company with a delivery hub in Christiansburg, announced Tuesday that it had donated aircraft A1229 to the national museum.

“The Smithsonian was such an inspiring place for a lot of people on our team and to be able to give back to that collection is really exciting for us,” Wing spokeswoman Alexa Dennett said. “None of this would have been possible without the support of the Christiansburg community and the broader New River Valley region.”

Aircraft A1229 completed its historic 2.32-mile trip on Oct. 18, 2019, when it delivered a winter vest from Dick’s Sporting Goods via FedEx Express to the home of Paul and Susie Sensemeier in Christiansburg, according to Wing.

The flight took less than 3 minutes.

That day two other drones made simultaneous deliveries in Christiansburg: cough medicine from Walgreens and popcorn and chocolates from Sugar Magnolia in Blacksburg.

Wing has since expanded its service to deliver products from six area businesses, and during the pandemic it has delivered library materials to Montgomery County Public Schools students.

Wing’s aircraft joins a long list of “firsts” in the drone industry to be collected by the Smithsonian, aerospace curator Roger Connor said.

Other unmanned autonomous vehicles in the collection include the first public service drone to save a human life and the first drone used for utility inspection, Connor said.

The museum also holds the first drone certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to deliver medical supplies in the U.S. That aircraft flew supplies to the Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise County in 2015 and was acquired by the museum in 2016.

Wing’s drone will be the third aerial delivery drone put into the museum’s collection, and the first to do home delivery, Connor said.

“Delivery drones are one of the most challenging areas for the technology,” he said. “It requires the most integration into the community, so things like safety and obstacle avoidance become central to making it effective.“

Wing was one of 10 companies to benefit from a White House push two years ago to ramp up the technology, and its Christiansburg project was the first to feature real customers ordering real products, Connor said.

But drone home delivery is still very much in the research and development phase.

“The deliveries are very short range, under six miles; the package sizes are quite small,” Connor said. “Over time what we should expect to see is a range of improvements.”

And in some cases, Connor said, surface delivery will remain cheaper and more practical.

“On the other hand, there’s going to be some sorts of applications that this will make a lot of sense for,” Connor said. “Where those lines will be drawn remains to be seen, but these kinds of demonstration projects are very important to work that out.”

Wing’s drones fly to the customer’s home and hover overhead while a string lowers the products to the ground in a small cardboard box.

The company says its service has been especially helpful during the pandemic, as some states, including Virginia, issued stay-at-home orders.

Wing says is global orders increased five-fold in early April, and its aircraft are making thousands of deliveries per month in the communities it serves.

The company closely guards information about its operations, and Dennett declined to say how many drones Wing keeps in its Christiansburg fleet, or how many deliveries A1229 made during the time it was in service.

A1229 weighs 10 pounds, has two forward propellers that help it fly at high speeds and 12 vertical propellers for braking and hovering over its delivery target.

Wing first gained attention in 2016 when it used a drone to deliver burritos in Blacksburg.

The company then shifted its focus to Australia, where it launched its first full-fledged drone delivery trial in 2018, followed by Helsinki, Finland, and Christiansburg, both in 2019.

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