Hawthorne, Nevada isn’t known for much. The town of roughly 3,000 sits on the western edge of the state, near an Army ammunition depot, and not much else. Announced today, Hawthorne is now the site of what might be a historic precedent: the first urban delivery in the United States by a fully autonomous drone.
The drone was flown by drone delivery company Flirtey, which got it’s start in 2013 in Australia, delivering textbooks to universities, before it moved to Nevada. Its six-engine multicopter flew along a predetermined path. When it reached the target house, it lowered a package containing bottled water, emergency food, and a first aid kit. The house was uninhabited, as the flight was a demonstration of what a rescue drone might be able to carry to people in need. Flirtey already conducted a rural delivery test, so it makes sense that urban was next, even if that “urban” is defined as a fairly small town. According to Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeney, 86% of packages are 5.5 pounds or less, and that the drone is designed to carry payloads that size up to 10 miles away.
“Hawthorne is a town with ideal characteristics for us, because you’ve got residential housing lots that have trees, power lines, that are perfect for research and testing precision delivery,” Sweeney told Popular Science, “the kinds of things you have in a regular suburban environment.” After Hawthorne, Sweeney said, the next step is to “do it over an urban populated area, the kind of environment that people live in on a daily basis.”
“When I came to the U.S. about two years [ago], there had only been one 333 exemption for drone use, and that was for drone operations in the arctic. In the past two years, we’ve seen the FAA grant the commercial operates the ability to fly and operate at an exponential rate. I think that people looking at this industry are seeing it move faster than many observers anticipated. Currently before Congress we’ve got the FAA reauthorization bill, which is envisioned to specifically include an authorization for drone delivery. I think the regulations are moving at a faster pace than many people are realizing. We are rapidly approaching a time where drone delivery is a reality, not just in the United States but around the world.”
To make the test possible, Flirtey collaborated with the University of Nevada, NASA, Virginia Tech, and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS), the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site. In mid-April, people can watch the delivery in Foreign Correspondent, a half-hour documentary that will air on ABC. And the delivery puts Hawthorne on the map, in a way that the Mineral County Museum’s “collection of hand-made knives taken from prisoners at the state prison” hasn’t yet.