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First FAA-Approved Drone Deliveries Complete

Drone deliveries in the U.S. will soon be an official, government-sanctioned activity. On July 17, the Federal Aviation Administration will allow a collaboration between NASA, Flirtey and Virginia Tech to fly unmanned aircraft to deliver pharmaceuticals to a free medical clinic. The fixed wing aircraft from NASA Langley and multi-rotor delivery drones from Flirtey will become the world's first autonomous aerial delivery services. 

The event organizers hope to prove that drone usage need not be nefarious or purely for enthusiasts. In fact, the goal of these drones is to bring life-saving meds to an under-served community.

“This is a Kitty Hawk moment not just for Flirtey, but for the entire industry,” said Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny in a statement. “Proving that unmanned aircraft can deliver life-saving medicines is an important step toward a future where unmanned aircraft make routine autonomous deliveries of your every day purchases.”

MORE: The Best Drones for Every Budget

The hexacopter that Flirtey uses, which is made by the University of Nevada, Reno, is made of carbon fiber and aluminum. It also sports some 3D printed components. It can range more than 10 miles from home base, and can lower cargo via tethered line. Built-in safety features, such as a low battery alert, will automatically return the craft to a safe location. In case of a low GPS signal or full communication loss, there's also an auto-return home feature.

The drones will deliver up to 24 packages of prescription medication, weighing 10 pounds. The event is part of the Wise County Fairgrounds' Remote Area Medical USA and Health Wagon clinic. Other than free medications, which will be flown to the Lonesome Pine Airport before being drone lifted to the fairgrounds, attendants will receive free eye, dental and other healthcare services.

Flirtey, which bills itself as the world's first commercial drone delivery service, conducted its first tests in Sydney, Australia in 2013. It started by delivering more than 100 textbooks. It went on to offered humanitarian relief in New Zealand, during a search and rescue mission. In May, 2015, the company conducted what it calls the first drone delivery over a populated area, sending auto parts via hexacopter.

The event blurs the lines between commercial and public use of drones. For drones to be used for commercial use, a company must apply for an FAA exemption. The usage must be deemed as low risk and being performed in controlled environments. Drones can only be used without an exemption for set periods of time in set locations by public entities (government, law enforcement, universities).

Anna Attkisson is the managing editor at Tom's Guide. Follow Anna Attkisson @akattkisson.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook.

  • lorribot
    So you have drones in the air with drugs and an armed populous and you guys in the US think that is a good idea?
    I would imagine there will be many no fly zones for drones and one or two stray shots taking out innocent bystanders before some one says that maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
  • JackKennedy
    The article incorrectly references West Virginia instead of Virginia, but the comment insinuates a stereotype of a people based upon a prejudicial view of Central Appalachian Mountain rural people and your erroneous perception of them. Sadly, this type of division serves no one. Unfortunate your comment.
  • mcgrawcm
    Love the idea of drone delivery in theory, but it will be interesting to observe the many ways in which this system will undoubtedly go awry before it matures. For example, if the meds are truly important, one would anticipate minimal tolerance for delays in delivery, and yet this system is likely to be less reliable than human delivery in its early days. I'm also concerned that although things might run smoothly under the best case scenario, it would seem that anyone could easily disrupt this supply chain for personal gain or mischief. And the elimination of a delivery person places more onus for safe delivery on staff at the receiving side, who might not have previously had any official role in delivery.
  • Coot25
    Does anyone seriously want these things cluttering up the sky, adding to noise pollution, and posing a danger when (not if) they crash? I see local municipalities imposing bans asap, and I hope mine does so. And speaking of an armed population, how many will resist shooting these things out of the sky -- not to steal what they're delivering, but because they're utterly annoying (or just for fun)? This is an example of a corrupt system, in which a government agency has been influenced by corporations who want to pollute the skies so they can make more money.
  • Nine Layer Nige
    On a plus side, I see this of great use in disaster areas where essential meds and water could be droned in by their 100's or even 1,000's, leaving the real helicopters to airlift out casualties.

    On a flipside, I see regular mail couriers losing their jobs, or actually re-skilling as virtual drone pilots.
    Whatever happens, hopefully, the 'good' potential outways the 'bad' risks.
    I expect as a joint development, "drone-slayer" automatic laser cannons will be able to strike rogue drones carrying terrorist payloads destined for government or military targets. So, the battleground evolves.

  • ubercake