Wing started drone deliveries in parts of Christiansburg in 2019. It now has eight partners offering everything from library books to ice cream. (Courtesy of Wing)

When Wing launches its residential drone delivery service in Dallas in the coming weeks, Texans who get boxes of Claritin or packs of Charmin dropped at their doorsteps should thank folks in Christiansburg for their help.

The Virginia town was the company’s first U.S. delivery site, and just this week it marked two years of drone service. On Wednesday, Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that it will expand into the Dallas-Fort Worth market, only its second U.S. site.

“In many ways, Christiansburg was kind of the birth of commercial drone delivery in the United States,” said Jacob Demmitt, a spokesman for Wing. “It’s been incredible the amount of stuff we’ve learned.”

Wing, which now has eight partners in Christiansburg, delivers Girl Scout cookies, library books, paper goods, even made-to-order Mexican food across a swath of the town.

The drones can carry about 3 pounds. (Courtesy of Wing)

The company first came to public attention in Montgomery County in the fall of 2016, when it tested delivering Chipotle burritos via drone to Virginia Tech students. Researchers at Tech, which houses the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and had been designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a drone test site, had been working with Wing in the months leading up to the burrito deliveries.

In April 2019, Wing became the first drone company cleared by the FAA to deliver goods commercially. That October, it launched its residential delivery program with three businesses: Walgreens, FedEx and Sugar Magnolia, a Blacksburg gift shop.

Deliveries are lowered from the drone to the ground by a tether. (Courtesy of Wing)

Sugar Magnolia started out offering greeting cards, chocolates, gourmet popcorn and a few other items through Wing, said Tom Raub, who owns the business with his wife, Michelle.

Over time, they’ve tweaked the mix; paper goods weren’t selling very well, so they’re concentrating now on food. About a year in, they were able to add pints of ice cream, which customers had been asking for, he said.

Wing has learned a lot about consumer needs over the past two years, Demmitt said, particularly during the pandemic, when household goods like toilet paper became hot items. Wing has worked with merchants to fine-tune which products are available by drone and has brought on more partners – like Christiansburg’s Brugh Coffee Co., after customers clamored for hot coffee.

Wing’s partners in Christiansburg now also include Mockingbird Cafe, Gran Rodeo Mexican restaurant, a Girl Scout troop and Montgomery County Public Schools, which uses Wing to deliver library books to students. 

Ice cream and library books

Most of the items that are available for drone delivery are stored at the Nest, Wing’s hub on Welcome Street, near Lowe’s.

Tom Raub said Wing takes Sugar Magnolia’s orders and handles deliveries, and all the store owners have to do is restock the inventory at the Nest.

Order volume varies; Michelle Raub said they’ve noticed some spikes in sales during the holidays or around Virginia Tech home games, when local residents might be showing off the drone service to family visiting from out of town.

But the sales aren’t really the point, Tom Raub said. Sugar Magnolia is lucky to be part of a project that is helping to determine the viability of commercial drone delivery in the U.S., he said.

“We’re the first small business in the United States to have our product delivered by drone,” he said. “That is a distinction we will hold onto forever. That’s something we’re really, really proud of.”

Kelly Passek, the librarian at Blacksburg Middle School, had signed up for Wing when the company first launched in Christiansburg.

Her deliveries of over-the-counter medications and household necessities got her thinking about other possibilities, she said.

Camden Robertson of Christiansburg receives a library book in June 2020, on the first day Wing delivered books to Montgomery County students. (Courtesy of Kelly Passek)

“I thought, well, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could deliver library books by drone?” she said –  especially during the summer, when schools are closed and kids might not have easy access to books. 

She told Wing about her idea, and the company said it would think about it. And then the pandemic hit, and the need for book delivery became urgent, she said. The first book delivery was made in June 2020. The program has continued, even as kids have returned to the classroom.

According to a December entry on Wing’s blog, the service delivered more than a dozen books on its first day. As of the blog entry, the library deliveries were “one of our most popular offerings in Virginia.”

Camden Robertson of Christiansburg receives a library book in June 2020, on the first day Wing delivered books to Montgomery County students. (Courtesy of Kelly Passek)

Wing has absorbed the costs associated with it, Passek said.

“It’s really exciting to see a tech company take such an interest in bringing physical books to students,” she said. “I still really don’t know that they understand just how important it is to students, and how it benefited students.”

Passek said her family still gets regular drone deliveries. A favorite order is burritos from Gran Rodeo, which can offer made-to-order dishes because it’s so close to the Nest – restaurant employees just walk the food over to the Wing hub.

“Two years in, we still run out when we hear the drone,” she said. “It hasn’t gotten old yet.”

Wing’s setup will be somewhat different in the Dallas area, where Walgreens will be the first business partner. Instead of a centralized hub, there will be a network of delivery sites, based at individual stores. 

When an order comes in, a Walgreens employee will pick the items from the shelves, package them and send them out via drone. Wing will oversee the process but won’t handle the actual orders.

Everything needed for a drone delivery operation will be housed in an 8-foot-by-8-foot shipping container that can be set up in the parking lot, Demmitt said.

Wing’s service area in Christiansburg. Courtesy of Wing.

Global growth

Wing won’t disclose how many delivery runs its drones have made in Christiansburg, or how many individual customers the service has had.

But it just logged its 100,000th delivery globally, Demmitt said. 

Wing also operates sites in Finland and in Australia, which has become a particularly robust market, he said. Thousands of deliveries a day are made in the city of Logan, where offerings listed online include sushi, hamburgers and groceries. Wing has even started putting drone delivery sites on rooftops.

Being able to set up small, decentralized sites is critical as Wing expands into major metros, where real estate is scarce and delivery speed is important, Demmitt said.

Christiansburg is by far the smallest of Wing’s sites globally. The town has about 22,000 residents, but the delivery zone covers just a roughly 4-mile radius around the Nest. Some of that land isn’t developed, and so most of the houses eligible for drone delivery are on the western side of the zone, Demmitt said. 

Wing has no immediate plans to expand the delivery area, but the new model, with its decentralized drone stations, could make it easier to do that in the future, he said.

Wing’s push into Texas is an expansion, he said, and not a move away from Virginia. 

“Christiansburg was a huge, huge step for us, and we’re absolutely still committed to continuing to operate there,” he said. “Everything is going really well. We couldn’t be more happy with the service in Christiansburg and the local reaction to it.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.