The Australian drone startup Flirtey made history on Friday, July 17, conducting the first commercial drone delivery test in the United States, ahead of better-known companies like Amazon.com, which has been harboring ambitions for a drone delivery system for some time.
In three trips, Flirtey’s drone ferried 10 pounds of medicine from a local airport to a clinic in the rural town of Wise, Va., population 3,286 (2010 census).
The company compared the maiden flight to the Wright brothers’ experimentation with the first airplanes in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Flirtey has just completed the first FAA approved drone delivery in the U.S. – a Kitty Hawk moment in Wise Virginia
— Flirtey (@Fly_Flirtey) July 17, 2015
The comparison, however, belies a crucial difference: The Wright brothers were the first people in the world to build a successful airplane, but successful drone deliveries have already been made in other countries.
Recently, Flirtey conducted a trial drone delivery in Auckland, New Zealand, and earlier this month, Switzerland’s postal system, cooperating with an American company, ran its own drone delivery trials. Germany’s Deutsche Post already flew drones to deliver medicine packages nearly two years ago.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration placed a de facto ban on drone delivery in February when its proposed regulations required that commercial drones fly within the line of sight of a human operator. Flirtey was able to station an observer at a vantage point to keep an eye on the drone at all times.
Eventually, the FAA may dispense with these rules, and it has considered loosening them for drones to conduct crop and pipeline inspection earlier this year.
Recent experiments with drone delivery have centered around medical supply and other lightweight packages that could be delivered to disaster-stricken areas cut off from the rest of the world by conventional transport, but companies like Amazon.com have a broader vision.
Earlier this year, Amazon.com filed a patent for an autonomous drone delivery system, with the goal of being able to hand an ordered item over to the physical customer within minutes of purchase.