The first drone delivery approved by the Federal Aviation Administration went off without a hitch last week in Wise County, Virginia. Flirtey, an Australian drone-delivery startup, piloted a drone carrying medical supplies from an airfield to a medical clinic.
As the Wall Street Journal noted (paywall), the July 17 trip from the supplying pharmacy to the clinic is about 35 miles, over windy roads. Flirtey’s drone, like most commercial drones on the market, isn’t able to stay in the air for that sort of distance, and so the company worked with NASA, which flew the supplies to an airfield about a mile from the clinic. NASA’s plane was an experimental drone of its own—a modified Cirrus SR22 that can be controlled remotely.
Flirtey’s trip marked the first time the FAA has allowed a drone to deliver something in the US, and could pave the way for future drone-delivery systems, like the one Amazon is trying to get off the ground. The FAA is in the process of finalizing its regulations for flying drones in public, which it hopes to have in place by next year. Virginia senator Mark Warner called the flight “a ‘Kitty Hawk’ moment” in the drone industry, according to USA Today, alluding to the first successful airplane flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
Flirtey’s nine-minute flight showed the potential for using drones to deliver goods to remote or inhospitable areas, such as disaster site, but those areas are a bit different than the populated areas where Amazon hopes to use drones to deliver products in. As the Wall Street Journal points out, the proposals under consideration at the FAA suggest that drone deliveries, especially those in which the pilot cannot keep the drone within view, would still likely be banned.
Other countries already are using drones in their airspace: Flirtey delivers goods back in New Zealand, and the Swiss government is testing out delivering mail by drone, as is the French.
It’s unlikely that Flirtey’s flight alone will be enough to sway the FAA’s thinking about allowing drone deliveries in the US—Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeney told Quartz that he believes US approval is still about two years away—but the test flight no doubt laid the groundwork for future experimentation.
“The true barrier right now is regulation,” Sweeney said.