The first federally approved cargo delivery by an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in the United States was completed successfully last week, transporting nine pounds of medical supplies. The July 17 exercise, in partnership with NASA, made three three-minute flights from Lonesome Pine Airport, in Virginia, to a clinic at the Wise County Fairgrounds, about two miles away, carrying a total of 24 medical packages.
Virginia Tech University reported that a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, a Cirrus SR22 (pictured at right), was used in the research flight, operated remotely by pilots at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. There was a safety pilot on board responsible for take-off and landing, but the rest of the flight was operated remotely.
The SR22 delivered the medical supplies to the Lonesome Pine Airport. Then the medical cargo was transferred in smaller packages to be delivered to the final destination at the fairgrounds by a much smaller drone made by Flirtey Inc., an Australian startup company that specializes in last-mile delivery. After a short flight, the Flirtey drone, a small hexacopter weighing about 10 pounds, lowered the cargo to the Wise Clinic by a tether.
The medical deliveries were held during an annual free health clinic at the fairgrounds, which serves more than 1,500 patients. Teresa Gardner, the executive director for the Health Wagon, a local outreach that co-organized the clinic, said, “People who need medicine, or even stitches, too often have to go without because they live in rural areas, where transportation can be a challenge. This technology could open so many doors for our patients and community.”
In May, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would allow the testing of drones, as long as they are flown at or below 200-feet to six approved sites in the U.S., one of which was the state of Virginia. Amazon, FedEx and DHL Express have all expressed interest in using drones for last-mile delivery, but so far the FAA hasn’t come up with any hard and fast rules for the aircraft.