Drone makes first legal doorstep delivery in milestone flight

July 17, 2015, 11:48 PM UTC
A drone (UAV) is pictured flying over Reims, on February 27, 2015. Investigators in Paris have been left puzzled by a string of drone sightings over Paris, even as three journalists for TV station Al-Jazeera were arrested on February 26, 2015 for flying one from a park on the edge of the city. Witnesses and security forces reported at least five sightings overnight Tuesday to Wednesday and a similar number the night before. AFP PHOTO/FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Francois Nascimbeni — AFP/Getty Images

It may not have been as long as a three billion mile trip to Pluto, but a small drone’s journey on Friday delivering medical supplies to a rural health clinic in Virginia was a milestone in its own right.

The successful delivery by a small pilotless aircraft operated by an Australian startup, Flirtey, made for the first time the federal government has legally allowed such a flight. The Federal Aviation Administration approved Flirtey to make the delivery as part of a joint venture called “Let’s Fly Wisely” between NASA, Virginia Tech university, several healthcare organizations in Virginia, and Flirtey, among others.

The delivery comes at a time when the FAA has been butting heads with Amazon (AMZN) and other companies interested in using drones to deliver products. Amazon, in particular, has been battling the FAA for approval to test drone deliveries, but it has complained the administration’s proposed drone regulations are too strict and hinder innovation of unmanned aircraft.

Amazon as well as pro-drone organizations like the Small UAV Coalition have submitted thousands of comments to the FAA regarding the changes in drone regulations they would like to see the administration make.

Under current rules, Amazon and other companies are all but prevented from making drone deliveries. Any company wanting to test drone flights can only do so during daytime and only as long as the aircraft remain in sight of its operator. Additionally, companies are not allowed to fly drones higher than 500 feet. Amazon and other companies are not expected to be able to launch commercial drone delivery operations until the regulations are finalized, which could come within a year from now.

It’s interesting to note that the FAA didn’t select Amazon to be involved in this particular mission. Instead, it went with relatively unknown startup that has recently expanded drone-flying operations to New Zealand, where government regulations are more lax.

Getting medical supplies to the poverty-stricken area of Virginia is apparently difficult because of its isolated location, so residents were eagerly waiting the results of Friday’s flight, NBC News reported. The region is one of six locations the FAA has approved for drone research and testing.

The startup also expanded its operations to Nevada where it’s partnered up with the University of Nevada, Reno to research and develop commercial drone operations in the United States.

While the deliver of medical supplies in rural Virginia can be qualified as a success, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

This particular flight was a joint project involving multiple parties, NASA, a university, and a company that has a track record delivering shipments via drone. It does not mean that we are likely to see a boom in drone deliveries any time soon, because FAA drone rules are still being ironed out.

This particular project is more of a symbolic milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

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