Google parent company Alphabet is teaming up with fast casual chain Chipotle to test drone delivery for Virginia Tech students, according to a report from Bloomberg. The pilot program marks a turning point for Alphabet’s Project Wing division, giving the team ample room to experiment with airborne burrito deliveries in one of the first commercial programs of its kind to be greenlit by the US Federal Aviation Authority. The drones, which will be hybrid aircraft that can both fly and hover in place, will make deliveries coordinated by a Chipotle food truck on campus.
"It’s the first time that we’re actually out there delivering stuff to people who want that stuff," Project Wing head Dave Vos tells Bloomberg. Most drone delivery testing in the US has been tightly restricted by the FAA, which has often been slow-moving and prohibitive when issuing rules around unmanned aerial vehicles. In June, the FAA removed the requirement that drone pilots have a pilot’s license, but it has yet to lay out an easy pathway for companies like Google and Amazon to move forward with semi-autonomous delivery drones.
Chipotle burritos delivered by flying Google robots? They're real
Alphabet initially tested Project Wing in Australia, and Amazon recently launched a pilot program for its Prime Air drone delivery service in the UK. Now, after gaining approval from the White House last month, Google is ready to team up with a national restaurant chain for one of the more ambitious real-world delivery programs. Project Wing drones will be guided predominantly by software, but human pilots will be on hand to assume control if necessary. The aircraft are also prohibited from flying directly over human beings. So active participants will be shielded appropriately, according to Alphabet.
Project Wing chose to partner with Chipotle because it presented unique challenges: could a drone adequately deliver food using a winch system, and can the food remain hot throughout flight with special packaging? "It sounds simple, but it’s not," said Timothy Sands, Virginia Tech’s president. "There are a lot of things to work out from a safety point of view and a policy point of view." The program will be accessible to select Virginia Tech employees and students.
All parties involved stand to benefit from burrito drones
All parties involved stand to gain something from the project. Because Virginia Tech is part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, it's been chosen as of six schools to be used as a testing ground for commercial drone use. The school hopes these types of pilot programs will help it became a leader in new transportation technologies, like drone delivery.
Project Wing, on the other hand, gets valuable data to help it develop a second-generation version of its aircraft and better hone its automated flight system and delivery mechanisms. (The team is one of many working with NASA to develop a state-of-the-art air traffic control system for UAVs.) The FAA will also use the data Project Wing generates to improve its commercial drone guidelines. And students? They get burritos ferried to them in the sky, a dorm room dream come true.