The first government-approved drone delivery has taken place in rural Virginia, with a pop-up health clinic having received a delivery of medicine.
While the delivery is a step forward in the use of drones, there are still a number of hurdles that services such as Amazon and Google face before they will be able to regularly deliver products via drones.
The delivery took place in a number of stages, with a manned aircraft taking the packages the majority of the way. Originally the drone was to make six trips, carrying a total of 10 pounds, but after two successful trips, officials sent the rest in one trip.
The medications delivered were prescribed by doctors at the Remote Area Clinic, which treats 3,000 patients during one weekend per year. Usually the clinic is limited in the treatments that it can prescribe because its supplying clinic is located around 35 miles away, which takes about 90 minutes by car. The drone, however, helped get medication to patients, some of whom had waited days for their prescription. The drone delivered the medication in three minutes, not including loading and unloading time.
The medication was first taken from Oakwood to Lonesome Pines Airport, which is located around one mile from the clinic. The drone then delivered the medication the extra mile. This is because of the fact that most drones cannot yet fly a full 35-mile trip. According to Matthew Sweeny, the head of Flirtey Inc., the drone company that carried out the delivery, his drones can carry 5.5 pounds 20 miles before the batteries die.
At this time, the Federal Aviation Administration does generally not approve delivery drones, with the medical delivery getting special approval. In fact, the FAA recently proposed rules regarding the use of commercial drones, banning them from flying over people and cities and beyond the sight of the operator of the drone. This effectively means that delivery drones will not be allowed to go ahead for now.
That restriction, however, only applies within the U.S. Companies like Google and Deutsche Post have conducted a number of test deliveries outside of the U.S., but the first successful approved drone delivery could help change perceptions about using drones as a delivery method.
"What we're trying to do is not only develop the technology, but [develop] the public's trust in the technology," said Frank Jones, deputy director of the Research Services Directorate at NASA Langley.