In December 2013, Jeff Bezos, the founder, and CEO of Amazon made headlines when he announced the company's intention to use unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to make deliveries. However, while Amazon is still trying to convince the Federal Aviation Authority, Australian startup Flirtey has already made history on by completing the first-ever FAA-approved drone delivery in the USA.
For its inaugural mission on July 17, the unmanned aerial vehicle was charged with delivering medical supplies to a health fair in rural Virginia The annual event attracts as many as 1,500 residents, all seeking treatment for ailments that have not received proper medical attention due to lack of accessible healthcare. In previous years, transporting medicine to the remote region took upwards of an hour and a half, as supplies had to be driven by truck up mountain roads. This year, that time was reduced to minutes!
The medical supplies which included 24 prescriptions began their journey in Tazewell County where they were loaded onto a NASA airplane (also remotely controlled) and flown to Wise County's Lonesome Pine Airport. The packages were then strapped onto a Flirtey drone and delivered to the health fair that was being held less than a mile away, in a speedy quick 2 ½ minutes. It took the drone that is made from carbon fiber, aluminum, and 3D printed parts, three trips to deliver all the supplies. The historical flights are not just a significant step forward in the use of drones in the US. They could also change the way food and medical supplies are delivered to remote regions or areas affected by natural disasters.
Flirtey, one of the world's first unmanned aerial vehicle delivery companies, is the brainchild University of Sydney engineering students Ahmed Haider and Matthew Sweeny. Launched in October 2013, its drones have completed over 100 deliveries, primarily textbooks all across Australia. In 2014, the entrepreneurs teamed up with the University of Nevada, Reno, to test the Flirtey drones at one of six FAA-approved flying zones in the United States.
Since then the Flirtey team has been working hard to ensure the aerial vehicle does not pose any danger to people and animals. This includes programming the drone such that it automatically heads to a predetermined secure location whenever it experiences low battery power, weak or no GPS signal, or inclement weather. Collision avoidance sensors allow the drone to avoid hitting birds and trees, while real-time GPS location tracking allows it to be traced at all times and even switched to manual control, if necessary.
However, while FAA's approval of Flirtey is certainly an encouraging sign, do not expect a drone delivery at your home anytime soon. There are still numerous issues that need to be ironed out, the biggest being the risk drones could pose to unsuspecting pedestrians. In fact, even in the sparsely populated Wise County, all traffic was stopped while Flirtey was in the air.
But the company's CEO Matt Sweeny is not concerned. He has his sights set on New Zealand which is known for its liberal drone laws. While US officials are still making up their minds (and rules), the Flirtey team hopes to continue establishing their track record and ironing out all the kinks. This will ensure that they are ready to launch if and when drones get sanctioned in the United States. As for the folks at Amazon? They will just have to wait and see what the FAA decides when the organization reveals US drone regulations in June 2016!