Millions of drones buzzing through the air, delivering the groceries you need to make your dinner, the medicine you forgot to pick up from the pharmacy or even a hot cup of coffee.
To some, it is the inevitable, efficient future. To others, it might sound more like the beginnings of a dystopian horror story.
Either way, it is now closer to reality. The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that Wing, the drone-delivery unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had received the agency’s first approval to use drones to carry and deliver packages commercially.
Wing had previously been testing its drones in a suburb of Canberra, Australia, where the machines had made more than 3,000 deliveries, in part to demonstrate the drones’ safety and gain the FAA’s approval, the company said.
There will be restrictions on its U.S. effort. The drone deliveries will be limited to parts of southwest Virginia, where Wing is already part of an FAA pilot program looking at how to integrate drones with society. The exact locations are still being determined.
The drones can be operated only during the day, when the weather is clear enough that they can be seen, said Greg Martin, an FAA spokesman.
They cannot fly above 400 feet (planes and helicopters typically fly above 500 feet). One drone pilot can remotely fly up to five machines, although it is not clear if there is a hard cap on the total number of drones allowed in the sky at one time.
Even with the restrictions, the drones’ backers portrayed the FAA’s approval, called an Air Carrier Certification, as game changing, particularly as regulations, technology and public aversion have slowed the progress of drone-delivery initiatives.
“From our perspective, it’s more treating drones like manned aviation,” said Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, one of the organizations involved in the pilot program. “That accomplishment is huge, and I think it’s a preview of the future of where this is headed.”
Hype about commercial drone delivery increased after Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, predicted in a “60 Minutes” interview in 2013 that drone deliveries could become commonplace within five years.
The hook system used to deliver goods from Wing’s drones at the company’s drone lab in Mountain View, Calif. last month;
Image: Henry for The New York Times
That failed to materialize. But globally, drones are increasingly being used in different ways.
Zipline, which delivers medical supplies, is distributing blood by drone in Rwanda, and Swoop Aero, an Australian company, is dispensing vaccines and medications in the remote South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Chinese aviation administrators have approved drone deliveries by the e-commerce giant JD.com and the delivery services business S.F. Holding Co.
In the United States, they have been used for emergency response, surveillance and aerial photography.
Jonathan Bass, a Wing spokesman, said deliveries in Virginia should start later this year, though he did not have a specific date. What the drones will actually deliver is still to be determined, but the company said it would focus on goods from local businesses.
Wing said it would seek input from local community leaders in the next few months on how to best implement the program.
When a Wing drone makes a delivery, it hovers at about 20 feet and lowers the package on a hook. Customers can select what they want delivered on an app.
In Canberra, where Wing has done most of its tests, one of the most common items delivered was coffee, Bass said. Drones also delivered ice cream, medicine, meals and, in one instance, mascara to a beautician who had run out while she was doing a makeover.
“There’s lots of interesting uses, some of which we wouldn’t have anticipated,” Bass said.
Bass said using the drones is “safer than getting in your car and going to pick something up, it’s better for the environment, it’s faster.”
“Personally, I like to cook a lot,” he added. “I can’t count the number of times I get to the end of a recipe and realize I’m missing one ingredient. To have that delivered straight to my backyard or my front door will be extremely valuable.”
Not everyone has taken to the idea of drones. A Pew Research Center survey in December 2017 found that 54% of Americans disapproved of drones flying near homes, 11% supported drones flying in those areas, and 34% favored limits on such use.
There are also questions about the economics and whether consumers will pay the extra cost to have small and lightweight items delivered by drone.
James Burgess, Wing’s chief executive, told The New York Times in March that “scale doesn’t concern us right now.”
“We strongly believe that eventually we will be able to develop a delivery service for communities that will enable them to transport items in just a few minutes at low cost,” he said.