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Wing seeks exemption for remote drone operation

Company wants to operate delivery drones from regional pilot in command stations

Wing, which has been testing drone delivery in Virginia, has requested an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration guidelines that would allow it to operate drones remotely rather than from a central command station. (Photo: Wing/Virginia Tech)

Following the release of positive public feedback for drone delivery in Christiansburg, Virginia, Alphabet’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) drone division, Wing Aviation, is requesting federal approval to operate drone flights from a remote location.

According to a petition published in the Federal Register on Monday, Wing is seeking an amendment to its exemption for unmanned aircraft system (UAS) delivery services to allow for the control of drone aircraft from a central hub as part of “regional pilot in commands” (PIC) operations. The company also wants to stage unmanned aircraft at multiple locations. Currently the aircraft must be staged at a central ground operating site.

Comments are being accepted for the next 20 days.

Wing has been making deliveries in Christiansburg since 2019. Virginia Tech last week published a report, “Perspectives on drone delivery,” on Wing’s operations in the town of 22,000 and, more specifically, how the residents of the community feel about drone delivery. Christiansburg is about 35 miles from Roanoke.

The survey determined that 87% of residents like the idea of drone delivery either a little, a moderate amount, or a great deal, and 89% said they were at least somewhat likely to, highly likely to, or have already used the service.

The survey, which was conducted in the fall of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, received 834 responses, 821 of which were included in the results.

Residents were also more likely to be in favor of drone delivery because of the experiences of living through the pandemic. The majority of respondents (58%) said the pandemic had improved their opinion about drone delivery. Only 1% said the pandemic had changed their opinions of drones to negative.

For package delivery, 49% said they liked the idea of using drones for that purpose rather than for other purposes.

Wing is launching drones from a central operations site, flying products within a three-mile radius. Flying five days a week, the deliveries are primarily made to suburban homes when the resident is home to accept delivery. The research found that deliveries averaged 57 per week.

Wing is running the pilot program in collaboration with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, an FAA-designated UAS test site.

READ: Perspectives on drone delivery

“It is important to note, however, that while a sample group uniquely familiar with drone delivery was a primary distinguishing feature of this survey, other major factors may be relevant,” the authors of the Virginia Tech survey wrote. “A high percentage of the survey respondents reported being generally receptive to new technology, which might be expected to include drone delivery.”

The authors also noted the survey results could have been skewed due to Christiansburg’s close proximity to Virginia Tech, a university with a strong engineering program. Because of this, the population of the town is more highly educated than the general U.S. population (62% of respondents hold at least a bachelor’s degree while just 33% of the general population does) and tends to be more accepting of new technologies.

The survey also found that 16% of respondents had received a drone delivery, 16% had interacted with Wing staff at outreach events and 77% reported hearing about the service through the media.

“These results are all significantly more favorable than other recent studies on the same topic but whose survey populations had no firsthand experience. In addition to being a promising sign for the future of drone delivery in the U.S., the nature of these results has useful implications both for survey design and outreach strategies,” the authors concluded.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].