Wing has finished its one-year trial drone service, but it looks like it will be around a little bit more. The company announced Friday the serve would continue.
Luke and Cassie Brugh of Brugh Coffee have seen what drone delivery can do for a business. They missed the face-to-face interaction, the sound of keyboards tapping and the Christiansburg regulars who would pop into their coffee shop on Roanoke Street each morning. Like many small business owners, the Brughs were forced to close their doors to walk-in customers as the COVID-19 outbreak reached Southwest Virginia. The store grew quiet, sales slumped and times got tough.
“It just felt like, for us, everything was on the up, we were getting toward the busy time of the year and it was like the chair got kicked out from under us,” Luke Brugh said. “Everything just kind of came to a screeching halt real quick.”
That’s when the Brughs decided to adopt drone delivery as a way to continue reaching customers.
Today, very few businesses have this option. But a recent study by Virginia Tech, in partnership with Wing, looked at the impact the technology could have as the availability of drone delivery continues to expand over the coming years. The study found that if drone delivery was offered, some restaurants could see sales increase by as much as 250%.
“As a business, we’re always trying to find new ways to reach our customers that makes sense and fits into our business model,” Luke Brugh said. “Drone delivery does that because it helps us meet our quality standards. Somebody is able to place an order on their phone in the app, and within 10 minutes it’s at their house.”
Drone deliveries weren’t the silver bullet to resolve the Brughs’ struggles during the pandemic, but they helped.
Over the past several months, Luke said, he has sold about twice as much cold brew coffee via drone delivery as he usually sold in store before the lockdown.
“It came in at a perfect time for us, and helped relieve some of that financial burden,” he said.
The business is still just getting started with Wing’s service, but its experience so far aligns with the findings by Virginia Tech’s researchers.
The study suggests that within 5 years of adopting drone delivery, participating limited-service restaurants could generate up to $284,000 per year in new sales while full-service restaurants could generate $145,000 and retail businesses $208,000.
Things still aren’t totally back to normal inside Brugh Coffee, but they’re starting to get there. Customers can now come inside to place to-go orders through a plexiglass shield. The business will continue the partnership with Wing as it reopens, and Luke says he looks forward to serving customers who have grown accustomed to this new technology.
“It’s been nice during COVID-19, but I think it’s a technology people will realize that they like having, that’s useful to them,” he said. “I think that drone delivery is just something that’s going to be around for the long haul.”
The project was part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
For the duration of the trial, Wing drones transported select FedEx, Walgreen, Sugar Magnolia and Brugh packages to qualifying homes in the community, demonstrating the benefits of drone delivery for last-mile delivery service. Wing, an offshoot of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has received the first authorization from the FAA to conduct scheduled, commercial drone package delivery to residences.
Initially, Wing began as a Google X project touted as a way to reduce carbon emissions and road congestion.
“Innovation has been part of the FedEx DNA since day one, and we are always looking for new and better ways to deliver the world to our customers’ doorsteps,” said Don Colleran, President and CEO of FedEx Express.
The launch location has been questioned by national media, but Wing officials say this is the perfect spot. The company is here because of the direct link to Virginia Tech. Wing has been working closely with Virginia Tech test drone delivery since 2016. Wing spokesman Jacob Demmitt said over that time, the company found this tech-savvy community to be welcoming and state and local government officials to be supportive of responsible drone operations.
During those early days, Wing’s drones delivered over a thousand meals to Virginia Tech students and staff.
The Wing spokesman points to the fact Wing’s Christiansburg trial represents America’s first and only drone delivery service available to the general public in the United States at this time.
The company advertises that only in Christiansburg can a tiny airplane bring stuff straight to your house. The local facility is largely built out of shipping containers, and not what most people would imagine. The containers are climate controlled, fully furnished and stocked with amenities to help the staff be productive. In addition, there are three containers marked for each participating retailer. In most cases, the items ordered by local families are brought to the site, which is labeled as the “nest” because of its launch pads, and placed in the containers in preparation for delivery.
Once a customer submits an order via a mobile app or through Fed Ex Express, the package is attached to the drone’s launch hook. The drone flies to the designated delivery location in a matter of minutes. Once at the customer’s home, the drone slows down, hovers, descends to a delivery height of 23 feet above the ground, lowers the package by tether and automatically releases the package.
The drone does not land, and customers will not touch the package until it is released. The drone then climbs back to cruise height to return to the nest.
Wing has flown more than 80,000 test flights and made thousands of deliveries to test, improve and confirm the operation’s safety.