The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and X's Project Wing will conduct research flights this fall at Virginia Tech, delivering food using unmanned aerial vehicles.

Project Wing is part of X, an innovation lab formerly known as Google[x] that incubates new breakthroughs in science or technology. The flights will be Project Wing's first tests involving external users in the U.S., and is its first collaboration with a Federal Aviation Administration-approved unmanned aircraft test site.

“The commercial use of drones for package and food delivery in U.S. airspace is rapidly becoming a reality,” said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner. “We are pleased to work with Project Wing and other great partners to leverage Virginia Tech’s tremendous research capacity to capitalize on the tremendous business potential promised by unmanned aircraft systems technology.”

The current phase of research is taking place at a closed site with a small group of students and employees, and is not open to the public.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia and its institutions of higher education are leading the way in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Virginia Tech’s work with Project Wing will open new markets for Virginia entrepreneurs and make this emerging industry safer and more affordable. As we work to build a new Virginia economy, cutting edge technologies like unmanned systems will help create jobs and diversify our Commonwealth’s private-sector portfolio. I look forward to continuing to work with our partners in business, higher education and government to advance this exciting sector and leverage it to make people’s lives better.”

The research, a step toward integrating deliveries by unmanned aircraft into everyday life, is a part of Virginia Tech’s commitment to create intelligent infrastructure for human centered communities, a $75 million initiative to provide experiential learning opportunities for students and build infrastructure that supports sustainable communities and co-evolves with users.

Extended flight tests at Virginia Tech will yield technical, safety, and user-experience data on food delivery via unmanned aircraft. Virginia Tech and Project Wing will share findings from the research with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Virginia Tech has long been a champion of aviation safety, innovation, and entrepreneurship,” said Project Wing lead Dave Vos. “Our collaboration will generate new data on the operation of a delivery system and aircraft and will help gather insights about how people might use an aerial delivery system in their daily lives. We’re grateful to all the partners across Virginia and the FAA who have made these tests possible.”

This round of testing will explore food delivery, which has constraints such as time, temperature, frequency, packaging, and volume that make it an ideal research platform.

“Last year while discussing the entrepreneurial spirit at Virginia Tech, I jokingly speculated we might one day have quadcopters delivering ramen noodles around campus — apparently I wasn’t off by much,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “This is what happens when great partners work together in a collaborative, innovative environment. We are continuously seeking new opportunities to support Virginia’s economy and prepare our students for the future.”

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Project Wing has conducted thousands of test flights in private airfields with a prototype drone that can fly efficiently for long distances and deliver packages safely and precisely. Now, under realistic delivery conditions at Virginia Tech, researchers will study vehicle performance, operational details, and navigational accuracy. The flights will also offer insights into a customer’s experience of receiving food delivered by air.  

“Package delivery by drone, especially for rapid turnaround operations like food delivery, is one of the most challenging applications of this technology,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Partnership. “Efficient operations require the aircraft to be operated beyond visual line of sight of the pilot, over densely populated areas, and with many aircraft in the air at the same time. This early-stage research effort with Project Wing will address many of the numerous policy and safety issues that are currently under development across the industry and by the FAA. Project Wing has the careful, methodical, safety-first approach needed for a high-impact project like this. That’s our approach, too, so it’s a natural partnership, and the beginning of a very productive relationship.”

Project Wing and Virginia Tech have worked closely to make sure that appropriate safety measures are in place.

Project Wing is focused on developing and mainstreaming delivery of everyday goods by small unmanned aircraft, which could open up entirely new approaches to potentially be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly than ground transportation.

This research will shed light on how to integrate unmanned aircraft delivery with manned aviation, eventually informing the routine operation of unmanned aircraft for everything from natural disaster relief to shopping to emergency medicine.

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership was selected by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 as one of six national test sites for unmanned aircraft. Since then, researchers have investigated medical supply delivery to remote locations, worked with NASA to research a traffic management research platform for unmanned aircraft, assisted in search and rescue missions, and enabled many other unmanned aircraft applications.

Their work, which has impacted fields including energy infrastructure, agriculture, and emergency management, addresses key challenges in the safe, evidence-based integration of unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace, such as flights beyond the visual line of sight and detect-and-avoid technology.

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