Wing Aviation, the drone firm that is part of Google parent Alphabet, on Thursday said it will launch a drone delivery pilot with FedEx and Walgreens in the southwest Virginia town of Christiansburg next month, making an early jump in a highly competitive field with implications for noise, privacy and the future of ordering everything from ice cream to toiletries.
The 10-pound drones will travel 60 to 70 mph and carry packages up to three pounds each, Wing said. The packages will be lowered down and released in customers' yards.
Walgreens will initially sell more than 100 products, from gummy bears to Tylenol. Blacksburg, Virginia-area retailer Sugar Magnolia will sell ice cream and birthday cards.
Wing initially will not charge for deliveries, which it said will occur in a limited but expanding area and sometimes arrive in five to 10 minutes. Other cities will follow, but the company would not say when or where.
"What we're most excited about is the engagement with the local community and really hearing from community members of all types at all levels what it will really take to make this valuable and acceptable and an everyday part of our future existence," said Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess.
The announcement comes as companies from UPS to Uber are pushing to launch similar services, and as other companies continue airborne delivery trials of medical goods and other products as part of a federal pilot program launched with White House backing.
Federal officials and companies backing those projects tout their potential to bring newfound convenience to customers and transform tasks as diverse as fertilizer application and pipeline inspection.
But far-reaching questions on potential quality-of-life concerns have yet to be answered. Among them: noise and privacy.
Wing said its drones "are quieter than a range of noises you would experience in a suburb." But it acknowledged that "they make a unique sound that people are unlikely to be familiar with." The company said it is working to develop "new, quieter and lower-pitched propellers."
Addressing privacy concerns, the company said its drones have a downward-facing camera "used exclusively for navigation" and that they do not capture video. The low-resolution images are not available in real time on the ground, and are "only available to a small group of engineers for the purpose of analyzing safety and performance criteria," the company said.
In April, Wing was the first drone company certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as an "air carrier," a designation that had been reserved for commercial operations such as charter flights with human pilots.
That regulatory breakthrough smoothed a major impediment for Wing - under FAA drone regulations companies can't charge to carry packages for other companies beyond the line of sight of the drone's operator, Wing said. But, as an "air carrier," Wing is allowed to do those fundamentals of unmanned deliveries.
The FAA said it considered "extensive data," including thousands of successful Wing flights in Australia, in concluding that the company could operate safely over communities in the United States. Wing must operate during the day and cannot operate during rain. The drones can transit over people, but can't hover above them, and can't carry hazardous materials.
Virginia officials have rolled out the drone welcome mat, helping Wing dodge, so far, broad-based opposition to its operations.
Some communities elsewhere in the country have sought to ban drone flights over their communities. But such local actions have raised unresolved questions about local and federal power. The FAA has pointed to its far-reaching authority to regulate what goes on in U.S. skies. The federal pilot program has paired eager state and local officials with companies looking for real-world experience and potential markets.
It's not clear how things might evolve in communities who prefer to forgo the promised boost in convenience to keep their skies drone free.