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Google affiliate begins drone deliveries in Virginia town

by Ace Damon
Wing Hummingbird drone

Rachel Lerman, Associated Press

Published Friday, October 18, 2019 14:22

Last updated Friday, October 18, 2019 7:10 PM

A Google affiliate began using drones on Friday to deliver their Walgreens and FedEx purchases from customers in a Virginia city trial.

Wing, owned by Google's parent, Alphabet, received federal approval earlier this year to make commercial drone deliveries. It was the first drone company to receive US approval, defeating Amazon's Prime Air, which unveiled its drone plans in 2013.

Earlier this month, UPS also obtained Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly delivery drones. The company is conducting delivery tests on the campus of WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Wing has partnered with Walgreens, FedEx and local gift shop Sugar Magnolia to conduct testing in Christiansburg, Virginia. Walgreens customers in town will be able to order a list of over 100 items and deliver them to their doorstep for drones.

Walgreens' first drone delivery customers ordered cough and cold medicines. A Wing drone also delivered a FedEx package from Dick's Sporting Goods to another family in town.

Susie Sensmeier received a purple winter vest that she ordered from Dicks Sporting Goods, delivered by a drone in the front yard. The 81-year-old said she never thought she'd see something like this.

"I didn't think I would live that long or it wouldn't happen in my life, I'm thrilled," she said.

The drones will begin with a flight radius of about four miles from Wing's distribution facility in Christiansburg. The drones are capable of flying on a 19km round trip and Wing expects to increase its radius eventually, although it has not given a schedule for expansion.

Wing has already launched tests in Canberra and Logan City, Australia and Helsinki. But Friday's flights mark their first commercial live deliveries in the US since receiving FAA air carrier certification.

Wing CEO James Ryan Burgess noted the speed with which drones can deliver – sometimes within minutes of ordering – and the environmental benefit of having fewer road delivery trucks.

"We are analyzing trends in cities, including congestion and environmental sustainability," he said. "We see drone deliveries as an essential part of their solutions."

In the Australian Wing pilot, Burgess said many deliveries are for food and cold medicine – things that people may need when they don't want to leave home. But another popular drone delivery item is hot coffee, which the company is delivering in partnership with a local coffee. Coffee gets hot because delivery usually takes less than four minutes, he said.

Concerns about privacy and security have been a concern in the US as the use of drones increases. But Burgess emphasizes that Wing's delivery drones do not operate with the same intent as those used for hobbies.

The purpose of Wing drones is not to take pictures and record videos, he said, but to deliver safely. There are cameras on Wing drones that are used for navigation, but Burgess said the images are processed aboard the aircraft and not transmitted back to Wing's main servers.

Wing suggested he plans to expand the service to other cities, but did not disclose details.

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