FedEx Express [NYSE: FDX] on Friday used an unmanned aerial vehicle instead of a truck for last-mile residential deliveries on behalf of pharmacy retailer Walgreens. The Oct. 18 deliveries were made by Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, in Christianburg, Virginia, under a pilot program authorized by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The shipments of over-the-counter medications, snacks and gifts mark the launch of the first scheduled, on-demand, commercial residential drone delivery service in the United States, Wing announced in a Medium post.
Customers in eligible delivery zones can submit drone orders from Walgreens via the Wing mobile app or can opt-in with FedEx to receive qualifying packages via drone. FedEx packages are loaded at Wing’s facility. The drone is authorized to reach a cruising height of 150 feet and can make deliveries in a matter of minutes. Once at the customer’s home, the drone slows down, hovers, descends to 23 above ground, and then lowers a tether and automatically releases the package before climbing back to cruise height and returning to base.
Wing received an expanded air carrier certificate from the FAA earlier this year so it could demonstrate safe commercial operation in the larger Blacksburg-Roanoke area.
“We hope that this latest addition to our delivery options will enhance the last-mile service for urgent, same-day deliveries, customers in rural or semi-rural areas, and other exceptional delivery needs,” Don Colleran, CEO of FedEx Express said in a statement about the trial.
Wing’s aircraft are designed to deliver packages that weight about 3.3 pounds or less. The company’s unmanned traffic management system plans the route, making sure to avoid obstacles and meet regulatory requirements. Once planned, the software indicates to the aircraft that is safe to fly to the delivery location and will intervene if any problem is detected. Trained pilots monitor operations to make sure the system operates smoothly, according to Wing.
Use of drones for real-world commercial deliveries is rapidly nearing reality. Last month, UPS [NYSE: UPS] received FAA certification to operate unlimited drone operations. The UPS green light was based on trials with drone maker Matternet, which involved shuttling drugs and medical supplies to hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina.
FAA policy has evolved to the point that commercial operators are essentially treated as airlines rather than simply a single pilot of an unmanned aerial system.