On Friday of last week, the world of drones had a historic first when a unit operated by Flirtey picked up medical supplies from a regional airport in Virginia and flew them over rough, rural terrain before dropping them down to a medical clinic. There was no breakthrough technology at work here, although the 3D-printed tether that lowered the package down was a custom design. Rather, this was the first delivery approved by the US government, a harbinger of a world to come, where critical supplies and everyday purchases might very well be delivered on demand by drone.
We chatted with Matthew Sweeney, Flirtey's co-founder and CEO, about what this means for the industry. "In this area, we had 3,000 people camping out for medical care in cars, blocking single-lane roads on the way to the medical clinic." The supplies are typically delivered by car, a 90-minute drive over bumpy, often broken down roads. "In circumstances with traffic congestion like this, or over rugged terrain, or in emergency scenarios like Katrina, drone delivery provides the fastest and most reliable method of delivery of emergency supplies."
Sweeney says the technology is ready for wide-ranging applications of drone delivery. It's the laws and perception that need to change before the practice is commonplace. "In the early 1950s many people thought it was impossible to run a mile in under 4 minutes, until Roger Bannister broke the barrier. The barrier turned out to be largely psychological and today that happens routinely. I think our achievement of the first approved drone delivery on US soil will break a psychological barrier."
"The first approved drone delivery on US soil will break a psychological barrier."
That barrier exists most forcefully among the legislators and regulators who are worried about the privacy and safety implications of drones flying over citizens' heads. In Virginia, however, drones have found enthusiastic government support, touted as a possible replacement for the ailing coal mining industry.
The major difference between this delivery and the ambitious plan proposed by Amazon for Prime Air is that Flirtey was flying over very sparsely populated land. "It's just a question of how long until the FAA allows operations over populated areas," says Sweeney. "I think it's likely within two years." Amazon was recently given permission to begin test flights in the US. But it's hard to imagine all the infrastructure needed for robust drone delivery in a place like New York or San Francisco — including an entirely new division of Air Traffic Control — coming online in such a short timeframe."