A small crowd was gathered on the lawn in a neighborhood outside Blacksburg, squinting up into to the sunlight as a drone zoomed into view over the treeline and hovered above the grass.
A tidy, aerodynamic brown trapezoid descended on a tether and settled on the ground, and the drone headed back the way it came.
Inside the package, popsicles and cups of ice cream were still cold.
The entire sequence — from the taps and swipes in the app that summoned the drone to its departure from the yard — took less than eight minutes. The seamlessness of the process belied the significance of the flight: This backyard popsicle drop-off represented the most advanced tests of drone delivery ever conducted in the U.S. and a milestone in a new federal initiative, called the UAS Integration Pilot Program, designed to smooth the way for drones to safely occupy the airspace.
Package delivery will probably create some of the most direct interactions between commercial drone operations and the general public. Until now, though, there’s been a considerable gulf between the limited testing permitted by U.S. regulations and widespread package delivery by drone. These flights, by drone-delivery company Wing, narrow the gap.
The demonstration successfully incorporated two critical features: aircraft flown over populated areas and beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. Because those characteristics introduce additional challenges, they’re only allowed under waivers to the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations. Wing was granted waivers for both types of flights, thanks to tens of thousands of flights at private facilities in the U.S. and hundreds of home deliveries in Australia that yielded enough data to demonstrate that their system could clear those hurdles safely.
Those capabilities were just part of what made the demonstration notable. Continue reading about the Wing IPP demonstration.