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Commercial drone delivery takes off in the US
RETIREES Susie and Paul Sensmeier stood outside of their front door Friday, watching as a small drone zipped over their neighborhood and headed for their rambler.
The aircraft - operated by Wing, an offshoot of Google's parent company - approached with a high-pitched whine, hovered in the clear sky above their front lawn and gently lowered a FedEx box containing a new puffy vest for Susie.
Drones have delivered medical samples and burritos in the United States before, but Friday's deliveries were a milestone for a burgeoning industry. The companies involved in the drop at the Sensmeiers' home and others to families nearby were the first to make commercial deliveries to homes.
Established delivery companies and startups alike have been promising to deliver packages by drone for years, but strict rules governing US airspace have hampered their ambitions. Finally, this spring, Wing and then a UPS subsidiary received the clearances they needed from the Federal Aviation Administration.
"There's been a lot of talk about drones. Today, we're actually doing it. We're actually delivering an e-commerce order to someone's doorstep," said Richard W Smith, the FedEx executive. "This is not vaporware. This is real. It's here today."
In the drone industry people often talk about a "crawl, walk, run" approach to getting unmanned aircraft safely flying alongside planes and helicopters.
Jay Merkle, the head of the FAA's drone integration office, said the industry has now crossed into walking, prodded in part by a 2017 directive issued by President Donald Trump. Running, Mr Merkle said, will be when projects like the one in Christiansburg can be scaled across the country.
That still looks to be way off. Clearing Wing to operate what it is still calling a trial required painstaking work to figure out how to apply to drones rules written years ago with airplanes and helicopters in mind. The company remains bound by strict limits on its operations.
Pilots' groups have been carefully watching the process, formally lodging safety concerns with the FAA. In recent written comments to the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association International complained that the internal manuals Wing relies on to demonstrate that it can operate safely are proprietary and so can't be assessed by the public.
The far-reaching scope of exemptions from flight rules that Wing has sought, the group wrote, "appears to erode the safety levels established by the FAA".
But the FAA says it needs the data gathered from early operations to decide how to write any future rules - doing otherwise, Mr Merkle said, would "completely stifle innovation."
Tom McMahon, a spokesman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone advocacy organisation, said progress has been slower than the industry would like, but that meaningful steps forward have been made in recent months.
He said he expects that customers will come to appreciate the speedy delivery made possible by hoisting packages through the air.
"It's like anything else we've seen with technology," he said. "We don't appreciate what it provides to us until it starts performing the service."
Walgreens, which is also participating in the project by offering a list of 100 products for sale including over-the-counter medical goods, snacks and drinks, is pitching it as a boon to parents with sick kids.
The idea in Christiansburg, a town of about 22,500 where Wing set up shop in partnership with nearby Virginia Tech, is for customers to be able to use an app on their phone to place an order and get a delivery within about 10 minutes.
The drone that arrived at the Sensmeiers' had departed from a base that Wing calls a nest about a mile away. Inside the nest, about a dozen of the drones sit on launchpads where their batteries can be charged.
The drones are made of the same kind of foam used in bicycle helmets and fly using a combination of 12 helicopter-like rotors and two wing-mounted propellers.
A single pilot can monitor up to five of the autonomous aircraft from a control booth inside one of the shipping containers. Observers who monitor the air are stationed around town.
From the nest, the drone travels at speeds up to 104kmh and can carry 1.4kg packages to homes within about 5.6km. When it arrives, the drone lowers the package, nestling it on the ground.
Hundreds of potential customers have signed up, a Wing spokeswoman said. Wing isn't charging for deliveries, and unlike UPS, Uber and Amazon, the other companies that have obtained or are publicly known to be seeking approval to deliver packages by drones, it's not already in the delivery business.
Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess said the company will succeed by forming partnerships with businesses big and small - one of its partners in Christiansburg is a local sweet shop - offering them faster, cheaper deliveries than going by ground.
Asked why FedEx looked for outside help while UPS has pursued its programme in-house, Mr Smith said his company's expertise is not in building drones. "We believe that Wing had a technology that was ahead of other drone technologies," he said. "The proof's in the pudding. We're out here delivering packages. Others are just talking about it."
Would-be drone operators have had to contend with the strict control the FAA imposes over the nation's skies. Over the past half-decade, the agency has gradually found ways to allow unmanned aircraft to undertake increasingly sophisticated operations.
Wing and UPS now have certification as commercial air carriers, leading UPS to bill itself as the first "drone airline" when its approval was granted this month.
In practice, though, both companies are still required to adhere to a lengthy set of limits even as they've been granted waivers from some FAA rules.
Mr Merkle said he expects the relationship between regulators and operators will continue to evolve, calling the work with Wing and UPS a "tremendous learning experience".
"We are learning to apply to existing regulations in a very innovative way to maintain the safety our communities expect," he said. WP