Girl Scout cookies take flight with drone deliveries

Google affiliate is using drones to deliver troop's sweets in a Virginia community

Alice Goerlich and Gracie Walker pose with a Wing delivery drone in Christiansburg, Virginia. The company is testing the drone delivery of the cookies traditionally baked by Girl Scouts in the US. Wing via AP
Alice Goerlich and Gracie Walker pose with a Wing delivery drone in Christiansburg, Virginia. The company is testing the drone delivery of the cookies traditionally baked by Girl Scouts in the US. Wing via AP

A Google affiliate is using drones to deliver homemade cookies to people’s doorsteps in the US.

The town of Christiansburg, Virginia, is a testing ground for commercial delivery drones operated by Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet.

Now the company is adding the boxed biscuits to the more mundane pharmacy offerings, FedEx packages and locally made pastries, tacos and cold-brew coffees it has been hauling to thinly populated districts since 2019.

“I’m excited that I get to be a part of history. People are going to realise and be, like, ‘Hey, this is better for the environment and I can just walk outside in my pyjamas and get cookies.’”

Gracie Walker

Wing said it began talking to local Girl Scout troops, who have had a hard time selling cookies during the pandemic, because fewer people are out and about.

“I’m excited that I get to be a part of history,” said Gracie Walker, 11, of the Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline Troop 224.

“People are going to realise and be, like, ‘Hey, this is better for the environment and I can just walk outside in my pyjamas and get cookies'.”

Wing is trying to build public enthusiasm for drone deliveries as it competes against Amazon, Walmart, UPS and others to overcome the many technical and regulatory challenges of flying goods over residential areas.

Federal officials brought in new rules in mid-April that permit operators to fly small drones over people and at night, potentially giving a boost to commercial use of the machines. Most drones will need to be equipped so police can identify them remotely.

The 22-kilogram Wing drone that made the first deliveries in Christiansburg in the autumn of 2019 is already an artefact held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Whether it will go down in history as a revolutionary innovation or a utopian flop remains to be seen.

Amazon has been working on drone delivery for years. In 2013, its founder Jeff Bezos said in a TV interview that drones would be flying to customers’ homes within five years, but that deadline has long since passed. The company did win government approval to deliver packages by drones in August last year, but Amazon said it was still testing them and has yet to deliver goods to shoppers.

David Vos, an aerospace engineer who led Google’s Wing project until 2016, said he was surprised that drone delivery ventures have not taken off more quickly.

“I thought it was completely doable to be up and going by 2021,” Mr Vos said. While he still thinks drone technology is getting closer to delivering the size, weight and power needed to transport goods safely in populated places, he said the tech industry also needs a cultural shift.

In particular, he said, it needs to bring on people from the traditional aviation industry who have experience building “safety-critical systems” that meet strict performance standards.

Wing’s drones are able to navigate autonomously – without a human pilot controlling them remotely – and are powered by two forward propellers on their wings and 12 smaller vertical propellers. When a drone reaches its destination, it hovers above the front lawn as a tether releases to drop the package.

“It was so smooth and it didn’t shake,” said Gracie ho, before her troop added drones to its sales strategy, would don a mask and set up a cookie booth outside a home improvement shop.

“They look like a helicopter but also a plane.”

There is little evidence that consumers are clamouring for drone delivery, and many have expressed privacy, safety or nuisance concerns when asked to imagine the noisy machines over their homes.

Wing objected to some of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new drone rules on privacy grounds, saying the remote identification requirement could allow observers to snoop on delivery routes online.

In this April 14, 2021 image provided by Wing LLC., from left, Girl Scouts, Alice and Gracie pose with a Wing delivery drone container in Christiansburg, Va. The company is testing drone delivery of Girl Scout cookies in the area. (Sam Dean/ Wing LLC. via AP)
In this April 14, 2021 image provided by Wing LLC., from left, Girl Scouts, Alice and Gracie pose with a Wing delivery drone container in Christiansburg, Va. The company is testing drone delivery of Girl Scout cookies in the area. (Sam Dean/ Wing LLC. via AP)

But in a small survey of Christiansburg residents by researchers at nearby Virginia Tech that Wing helped to fund, most townspeople appeared to be content with the drones.

“One of the reasons is because Virginia Tech is here and there’s an engineering culture of trying new things,” said Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology and society who conducted the smaller survey. “And the suburban set-up is easiest for drone delivery.”

He said that might not be the case for more densely populated places. “Manhattan would be tough.”

Updated: April 30, 2021 01:38 PM

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