Alphabet’s delivery by drone surge to stay-at-home customers

Project Wing conducts example flights of their drone delivery system, in which a remotely operated drone picks up and delivers small packages, in a neighborhood next to the drone test facility at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, August 07, 2018. BLOOMBERG/Charles Mostoller

Alphabet Inc.’s Wing unit is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of customers using its drone delivery service in rural Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wing, which began routine deliveries under a test program approved by the federal government last October, has added new vendors and expanded the items customers can order to better serve people during the epidemic, the company said in a statement Wednesday.

“The technology is particularly useful at a time when people are homebound in many cases and the need to limit human-to-human contact is important,” spokesman Jonathan Bass said in an interview.

Deliveries have more than doubled in the Christiansburg, Virginia, area where the U.S. test is being conducted and in a similar project in Australia, Bass said.

In addition to partnerships with FedEx Corp. and the Walgreens drug-store chain, Wing recently began deliveries from a bakery and a coffee shop.

Mockingbird Cafe sold 50% more pastries through Wing’s drones in its first weekend with the company than it typically sold in its store prior to the virus-related business disruptions.

Deliveries from Walgreens have included toilet paper, medicine and toothpaste, the company said. They recently added items such as pasta and baby food to meet demands of people staying home.

While the payload of Wing’s autonomous drones is limited, orders are fulfilled within minutes, Bass said.

The program is being run in the community around Christianburg. Wing is working with nearby Virginia Tech, which has a drone-test program approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Amazon.com Inc., United Parcel Service Inc. and many smaller companies are also experimenting with the concept of drone deliveries.

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