In this April 14, 2021 image provided by Wing LLC., Girl Scouts Alice Goerlich, left, and Gracie Walker 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., Girl Scouts Alice Goerlich, left, and Gracie Walker 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)

Girl Scout cookies take flight in Virginia drone deliveries

The drones are able to navigate autonomously — without a human pilot controlling them remotely

Missing out on Thin Mints in the pandemic? A Google affiliate is using drones to deliver Girl Scout cookies to people’s doorsteps in a Virginia community.

The town of Christiansburg has been a testing ground for commercial delivery drones operated by Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s corporate parent Alphabet.

Now the company is adding the iconic boxed cookies to the more mundane drugstore offerings, FedEx packages and locally-made pastries, tacos and cold brew coffees it’s been hauling to a thinly populated area of residential subdivisions since 2019.

Wing said it began talking to local Girl Scout troops because they’ve been having a harder time selling cookies during the pandemic, when fewer people are out and about. The organization jumped on the new twist to its skills-building mission.

“I’m excited that I get to be a part of history,” said 11-year-old Gracie Walker, of the Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline Troop 224. “People are going to realize and be, like, ‘Hey, this is better for the environment and I can just walk outside in my pyjamas and get cookies.’”

It’s the latest attempt to build public enthusiasm for futuristic drone delivery as Wing competes against Amazon, Walmart, UPS and others to overcome the many technical and regulatory challenges of flying packages over neighbourhoods.

Federal officials started rolling out new rules in mid-April that will allow 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 they can be identified remotely by law enforcement officials.

The 10-pound Wing drone that made the first deliveries in Christiansburg in fall 2019 is already an artifact 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 also been working on drone delivery for years. In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said in a TV interview that drones would be flying to customer’s homes within five years, but that deadline has long since passed. The company did win government approval to deliver packages by drones last August, but Amazon said it was still testing them and hasn’t started delivering goods to shoppers yet.

David Vos, an aerospace engineer who led Google’s Wing project until 2016, said he has been surprised that drone delivery ventures haven’t taken off more quickly.

“I thought it was completely doable to be up and going by 2021,” 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, Vos 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 Walker, who, before her troop added drones to its sales strategy, would don a mask and set up a cookie booth outside a home improvement store. “They look like a helicopter but also a plane.”

There’s not much evidence that consumers have been clamouring for drone delivery, and many have expressed privacy, safety or nuisance concerns when asked to imagine the noisy machines over their homes. Wing has objected to some of the FAA’s new drone rules on privacy grounds, saying the remote ID requirement could allow observers to snoop on delivery routes online.

But in a small survey of Christiansburg residents by researchers at nearby Virginia Tech that Wing helped 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 Virginia Tech survey. “And the suburban setup is easiest for drone delivery.”

That might not be the case for much denser places, he added. “Manhattan would be tough.”

Matt O’Brien, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Nexii roof panel is lifted during construction of a Starbucks in Abbotsford. Alexzi Building Solutions will be building a manufacturing plant in Langford or North Cowichan to produce the sustainable construction panels. (Photo courtesy of Alexzi Building Solutions)
Langford eyed for facility to make green building alternative to concrete

Langford, North Cowichan possible sites for plant to create sustainable construction panels

Local MP Elizabeth May says the public has a right to know the identity of the company that plans to operate the massive warehouse proposed for Sidney on airport lands but residents who want to stop the project would probably have to go through the courts. (Black Press Media File)
MP Elizabeth May says public has right to know identity of Sidney warehouse operator

Residents wanting to stop the project would probably have to go through the courts, said May

Bukwila by Art Thompson, set at the steps of Lansdowne campus’ Wilna Thomas Cultural Centre, has been welcoming students to campus since 1997. (Photo courtesy of Camosun College)
World-renowned artist’s legacy lives on at Camosun College

Art Thompson made untold contributions toward Indigenous education, art and advocacy

Did you know, according to the CRD, every person produces an average of 185–200 litres of wastewater per day? Here’s where most of it gets treated, at the new wastewater treatment facility at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt. (CRD image)
View Royal signs on to wastewater funding plan

Capital Regional District requesting to borrow up to $34.3 million to upgrade infrastructure

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

Island Health has confirmed COVID-19 exposures at Ecole des Deux Mondes in Campbell River on May 4 and 5, and at Mill Bay Nature School in Mill Bay on April 28, 29, 30 and May 3. (Metro Creative photo)
Two new COVID-19 school exposures confirmed by Island Health

Health authority contacting anyone exposed at Ecole des Deux Mondes, Mill Bay Nature School

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

The dash cam footage, taken May 7 at 8:18 a.m. belonged to the driver of a southbound vehicle that recently travelled out of the tunnel. (Reddit/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Dash cam captures dramatic rollover crash on Highway 99

Only one person sustained injuries from the collision, says B.C. Ambulance Services

Chevy stranded on a ledge above a rocky canyon at Mimi Falls near Logan Lake, April 28, 2021. (Photo credit: Margot Wikjord)
Police officer and fire chief team up in risky rescue of stranded dog near Logan Lake

Chevy, a rescue dog, needed rescuing again after getting stuck on a ledge above rocky canyon

Police were on the scene of a fatal shooting in Abbotsford. (Black Press Media files)
B.C. government to give more than $8 million for programs to curb gang violence

221 not-for-profit projects led by local governments and school districts among others will receive a one-time grant

Gord Judson steers his log truck down a forest service road, using two-way radio and call signals to mark his position for oncoming traffic. (B.C. Forest Safety Council)
Planning some B.C. wilderness fishing? Don’t catch a log truck

Remote recreation areas bracing for heavy pandemic pressure

Most Read