The Virginia town of Christiansburg is getting a preview of what life will be like when delivery by drone becomes practical. Forced to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, more residents are ordering from a pilot residential delivery service run by Wing, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, the company says. The most popular items: Coffee, toilet paper and cookies.
Wing says it’s made more than 1,000 deliveries over the past two weeks in Christiansburg and at test sites in Helsinki and two Australian cities where movement has also been restricted to stem the spread of the disease. “That’s a dramatic increase from our standard rates,” says Jacob Demmitt, a spokesman for Wing.
The company won’t break out numbers for Christiansburg.
A local bakery and a coffee roaster recently added to the service are hoping that drone delivery will help keep them afloat. In their first day of availability on Saturday, which has been the busiest day for Wing, Mockingbird Café owner Donna Speaks says that drone delivery customers bought roughly double the number of croissants, muffins and almond macarons that she would normally sell in store. “Right now it’s a super great bonus for us,” she told Forbes.
Wing has been offering delivery of Walgreens merchandise in Christiansburg since October, making it the first residential drone delivery service in the U.S., under a program run by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to test integration of unmanned aircraft into airspace in 10 locations around the country.
The merchandise is stocked at a Wing facility, from which drones fly at a cruising altitude of 150 feet and a speed of 65 mph over the town of 22,000 people. When a drone gets to its destination, it descends to 23 feet and lowers a laminated paper cargo box suspended from a rope. Cargo capacity is 3 pounds.
Amid the pandemic, Walgreens has expanded its delivery options to include, pasta, pasta sauce and other items that can be used to make a meal, and Wing decided to expedite adding local food merchants to its service.
It’s been a lifeline for Speaks, 61, who has a storefront in a former Model T dealership in the town’s deserted downtown. She’s shrunk her menu and gone from four full-time employees to running the business by herself with part-time help from her daughter, who makes the bakery’s fancier desserts.
Speaks says she’s gone into almost full production mode again. “I think we’ll get back to normal faster through this.”
Luke Brugh, who runs Brugh Coffee, says Wing’s sales of cans of his cold brew on Saturday were double his normal daily in-store take.
Wing isn’t adding a delivery charge to the cost of his $3.50 cans of joe or Mockingbird’s $2.75 croissants or blueberry muffins — it’s trying to figure out how to make drone delivery work rather than make any money at this point. Another bonus: customers don’t have to tip the drone, says Demmitt.