We’ve been hearing about how drone-based deliveries will be taking over from our friendly mail carriers for some time now. Amazon, the retail giant, has most famously promised us the technology—to be launched sometime in the future.
Well, it sounds like Amazon has been beaten to the post—or the mailbox.
A startup called Flirtey has conducted the first real-world demonstration of drone delivery.
The drone carried 10 pounds of medicine to a free rural health clinic in Virginia. What’s more, it did the deed multiple times. And it was sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Australia-originating Flirtey, now based in Nevada, partnered with Virginia Tech and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to conduct what it calls “the first approved U.S. drone delivery.” It made the claim on its Twitter feed.
It says it delivered 24 medical packages to patients in Wise County, Virginia. The company also posted video of its first drone delivery.
Flirtey’s drone is a carbon-fiber hexacopter with a 10-mile range, according to Startup Daily. The drone weighs 10 pounds.
A hexacopter has more arms and motors than the usual quadcopter you see being flown by hobbyists. The extra motors allow for greater payload capacity.
In this case, the drone lowered its cargo by tether—which is just one way to do it.
I’ve seen an alternative, which was a payload demonstration where the drone pilot remotely releases a catch and allows a padded package to fall to the ground. In that case, it was a Search and Rescue emergency medical supply kit.
The Flirtey deliveries took place in Wise, Virginia, on one day in July. The county is notable for having 22% of its population below the poverty level,according to census figures. That compares with 11% for Virginia as a whole and 15%nationally.
The one-day clinic there typically serves 1,500 patients, according to the Roanoke Star. It runs out of supplies sometimes, and so it needs speedy deliveries.
This year, the clinic used a combination of a remotely piloted fixed-wing aircraft to transport medicine from a supplying pharmacy. It then used the multirotor drone for the last-mile, airport-to-field location.
The locals thought it worked out.
“People who need medicine too often have to go without because they live in rural areas where transportation can be a challenge,” said Teresa Gardner, executive director of the Health Wagon, the local healthcare outreach organization involved in the project, according to the Roanoke Star.
There’s still work to be done. In this proof-of-concept, the drone used a pre-defined route in a rural area without many obstacles to avoid. That made it easier to accomplish than it would have been in a major urban area, for example.
Full-time adoption of drone delivery includes solving issues like collision avoidance in the routing of flights. I’ve written about an option for drone collision avoidance before in “New algorithms could keep drones from crashing into people.”
But this shows progress.
“This technology could open so many doors for our patients and our community,” health worker Gardner says.