A startup named Flirtey says it’s executed the first FAA-approved urban drone delivery in the United States, in a test that could blaze a trail for Amazon and other companies that want to do the same thing.
The GPS-guided drop-off to an unoccupied house took place on March 10 in Hawthorne, Nev. The package of supplies, including bottled water, emergency food supply and a first-aid kit, was lowered by a rope to the house’s front porch from a hovering hexacopter. A drone pilot and several visual observers were on standby in case something went wrong, but they weren’t needed, the company said.
“Conducting the first drone delivery in an urban setting is a major achievement, taking us closer to the day that drones make regular deliveries to your front doorstep,” Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny said today in a news release about the test.
Flirtey has already used drones to deliver textbooks in Australia and auto parts in New Zealand, but its grand plan is to crack the market in the United States. That’s why it’s been participating in limited tests sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration at specified sites. Last July, Flirtey conducted a similar test for rural drone delivery in Virginia.
The latest flight tested the drone’s ability to navigate around buildings, power lines and streetlights to make a precision drop-off in a populated area. Flirtey’s partners for the test included the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center at the University of Nevada at Reno, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems and NASA.
Flirtey is practicing with food, water and emergency supplies because it’s interested in the markets for humanitarian relief, online retail and food delivery.
Chris Walach, director of operations for the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site, said the Flirtey team “excelled in all aspects of safe flight operations in the National Airspace System.”
“This was by far one of the most successful UAS operations we ran, and represents an advanced level of test and development of new UAS technology, flight planning, innovation and mission execution by Flirtey,” Walach said.
The FAA has been involved in a wide range of tests to study how small-scale unmanned aircraft systems behave in a variety of rural and urban settings, how they work when they range beyond a drone operator’s line of sight, and how they can be programmed to avoid sensitive areas and other aircraft.
The results of the tests are being fed into the FAA’s rule-making process. Regulations for commercial drone operations are expected to be released later this spring. Once that happens, Flirtey is likely to be joined in the drone delivery marketplace by Amazon and other heavyweights, including Walmart and Google.