It has become a recognizable whir, one we hear at football games, festivals or walking across a parking lot. The buzz is similar to that of a flying stink bug, if amplified 100 times. But it’s not a stink bug (or a bird or a plane). It’s a drone! And they’re everywhere.
A drone, by definition, is simply any unmanned aerial vehicle. The first drone use occurred in the mid-1800s when Austrian soldiers filled balloons with explosives to attack Venice. Since then, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have been primarily used for military purposes, aiding modern warfare in combat surveillance, reconnaissance and spy efforts.
Now, nearly two centuries after the attack balloons, recreational and commercial drone use is growing exponentially. In 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recognized the need to regulate non-military and non-recreational drone flight by issuing the first commercial drone permit. A decade later, more than 3,000 permits were issued, and the number continues to increase. Drones, like stink bugs, are household word(s).
In response to this ever-burgeoning technology, Virginia Tech’s Drone Park (visible from the U.S. 460 bypass) opened in 2018 to give students, researchers and members of the community a place to explore all-things-drones. At 85 feet tall and roughly the size of a football field, it’s considered a closed facility, therefore not subject to national air space regulations.
“We are the largest unencumbered drone cage in the country,” offers Sarah Macey, drone park manager. “It’s the biggest it could be without interior support structures.”
The park is used predominantly by the college of engineering, but sees activity from nearly every area of study, even Moss Arts Center. There are drones on-site for school and community groups to use and VT’s Drone Racing Team is a regular patron.
“It’s a great space for students to test equipment and learn how to fly in a safe environment,” Macey adds. “It’s a gateway to this technology for a lot of people.”
The park falls under the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, as does the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), one of seven nationwide UAS test sites designated by the FAA.
MAAP is a member of the Virginia team that was selected for a federal initiative called the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP). IPP’s mission is to broker the relationship between state agencies and local governments to private companies that wish to integrate into national air space. MAAP helps secure waivers, evaluate equipment and ensure that everything is executed safely and effectively.
Virginia is one of just three states that hold the credentials of being both a test site and part of the pilot program. It’s a huge reason why Wing, quite literally the latest buzz in the New River Valley, opened up shop here.
Wing was founded in 2012 as a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and is one of Virginia Tech’s IPP partners. There are two Wing facilities in Australia, one in Helsinki, Finland, and one in Christiansburg. Jacob Demmitt, spokesperson for Wing, says the local response has been extremely positive and welcoming.
“Community feedback is a really big piece of this. One of our top priorities is hearing what people want from drone delivery. We are available to answer questions,” Demmitt explains.
Behind privacy fencing in the middle of Christiansburg’s retail mecca sits the Wing facility, constructed entirely out of converted shipping containers. There is a viewing center overlooking the drone field designed with a large deck and cushy outdoor furniture. They regularly host local organizations and school groups for a peek behind the curtain.
Wing is currently working with three partners: FedEx, Walgreens and Sugar Magnolia in downtown Blacksburg. They are delivering packages limited to three pounds to a three-and-a-half mile radius. The entire process, from online checkout to when the tether lowers and releases the package on your front lawn, is around 10 minutes.
The drones are made of heavy-duty foam, weigh 10.6 pounds and are four feet long with a 3-foot wingspan. There are 12 vertical rotors and two horizontal propellers for a seamless transition from helicopter to airplane. Even though they fly autonomously at approximately 65 miles per hour, there is a UAS-certified pilot on site at all times overseeing operations.
“We are the first drone company to be an FAA-certified air carrier, meaning we are held to the same high standards as more traditional manned commercial aircraft,” Demmitt states. “At this time, we are the only residential drone delivery service available to the general public in the United States.”
Potential uses for UAS technology are palpably widespread, from agricultural pesticide application and disaster damage assessment to first aid administration and power line inspection. Plus, what cost-efficient aerial photography has done for the real estate industry.
“I feel like we’re still in the Model T stage of drone technology,” Macey concludes. “It will be interesting to see where the research takes us.” As UAS components continue to advance, so will their relevance to our everyday, operational lives. “The sky’s the limit,” as they say. Or… is it?
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer based in Blacksburg whose 6-year-old asked for a drone for Christmas. When she was 6, she probably asked for a Strawberry Shortcake doll. Oh, how the times they are a’changin’.
Wing feedback: wing.com/contact
Sign up for Wing delivery: wing.com/va
FAA Drone Regulations: faa.gov/uas
Fly at VT’s Drone Park:
Text by Nancy Moseley
Photos Courtesy of Wing