In Rural Virginia, a Drone Makes the First Legal U.S. Package Delivery

Advocates call it a “Kitty Hawk moment” for the flying package business.

Flirtey's UAV, en route to a delivery in Wise, Virginia last week. (Flirtey)
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Amid the rolling hills of rural southwest Virginia, a bit of American aviation history was written last week at the Lonesome Pine Airport near Wise when a hefty, six-rotor UAV took to the air to deliver medicines to the annual Remote Area Medical Expedition at the Wise County Fairgrounds. Flying a doglegged course at 200 feet above the ground, the Flirtey F3 aircraft navigated to the fairgrounds via GPS waypoints. Hovering 40 feet above an open area at the fairgrounds, the drone, nicknamed Nemesis Prime (for the Transformers character), lowered a custom-built container to the ground at the end of a cord. When the container, containing a variety of medicines, was safely on the ground it was automatically released. Then Nemesis Prime hauled the cord back on board before turning and flying back to the airport.

It was a short flight, barely a half mile each way, but it had the FAA’s blessing to fly. And that made it the first official drone package delivery in this country. And unlike the Wright Brother’s first flight, this six-minute-and-ten-second trip came with lots of rules, restrictions, pomp and ceremony.

The flight was the first of six planned to be flown on July 17 by the Australian UAV firm Flirtey, in partnership with Virginia Tech, the MidAtlantic Aviation Partnership and NASA. However, high winds at the fairgrounds, and a realization that they could deliver all the medications in just three flights, led to the last three flights being cancelled. According to Flirtey COO and cofounder Tom Bass, the flights were “extremely important. Basically it’s a keyhole moment for UAVs, especially for package delivery.” Bass said the flights, which he described as one of a series of trial efforts, are a steppingstone to more complex humanitarian flights that will pave the way to future commercial operations. “I’m very much looking forward to getting us to the stage whereby we can roll a dozen of these out the back of a C-130 in a disaster area,” he said.

Bass says that during emergencies, manned aircraft are not only expensive, but also in high demand. “If the drones can take care of the resupply, at a fraction of the cost per flight hour, then the manned aviation aircraft can be used for what they’re suited to best: which is rescuing people.”

Advocates of drone delivery of medical supplies only have to think back a few months to come up with an example of how this technology might come in handy. “In February, we had roads shut down for two weeks” due to flash flooding, according to clinical pharmacist Crystal Kilgore. She grew up in the area near Wise, and was at Lonesome Pine to organize the package of medicines to be flown to the fairgrounds. “I live in town in Norton. I could not get to my house for a week and a half. Patients couldn’t get in and out of their homes for two weeks. If you have a patient on a medication like insulin or an inhaler and they run out, they can’t get to the pharmacy and the pharmacist can’t get to them. If we were able to fly medications to those patients, you could save a life.”

But demonstrating that ability came with a list of strict FAA requirements. The agency required Flirtey, as it does for all civilian UAS/UAV operations, to keep its aircraft in sight, so the flight crew had to have eyeballs on the drone at all times. Nor could they overfly structures such as homes or barns, which meant that Nemesis Prime was forced to fly a doglegged flight path over fields and trees. To protect passing vehicles, local sheriff’s deputies and state police were on hand to stop traffic as the aircraft crossed the only road between the airport and the fairgrounds. Additional FAA requirements included keeping the drone below certain altitudes and away from any clouds, as well as yielding to any manned aircraft.

As part of the safety precautions, no spectators were allowed within 400 feet of the aircraft during operations so the several hundred people in attendance watched the historic takeoff from the other side of the runway at Lonesome Pine. No other drones were allowed in the air at the same time, which was a last-second disappointment to the folks at SEESPAN, a small UAV optimized for news gathering that had planned to document the event. (They had to settle for “interviewing” Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe from a discreet distance.)

While the FAA may have considered it unsafe for two drones—one of them, SEESPAN, tethered to the ground—to be airborne at the same time, the state police helicopter charged with transporting McAuliffe was not so encumbered. It took off seconds after the well-announced departure of Nemesis Prime. McAuliffe attended the event because he supports the development of the drone industry in Virginia. His arrival, characteristically late, kept a NASA SR-22 circling the airport while it was controlled from inside the hanger at Lonesome Pine. The SR-22, with a safety pilot and an engineer riding herd on computers and communications, had flown remotely from Tazewell, Virginia to bring all the medicines that would be placed aboard Flirtey’s S3 UAS. While the governor upset the day’s schedule, the extended flight time helped NASA demonstrate the SR-22’s capabilities.

At the end of the day, just about everyone was enthusiastic with how well the demonstration had come off. “What happened today demonstrates that drone technology isn’t evil,” said Flirtey’s Tom Bass. “It’s not there to invade your privacy. It’s there as an additional tool to help mankind. We just need to wield it correctly.”

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About Tim Wright

Writer and photographer Tim Wright is a regular Air & Space contributor whose assignments have ranged from Africa and Asia to the Arctic.

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