BLACKSBURG — It may have looked like a regular coffee and bottle of water that Sen. Mark Warner ordered on Friday afternoon, but this particular delivery was anything but ordinary.
The beverages were carried about a mile to Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm and lowered to Warner from a delivery drone by Wing, Google’s sister company. While he waited, Warner peppered Wing’s team with questions, from safety issues to technology logistics.
“I wanted a water,” Warner said as he retrieved the brown delivery box and pulled out a bottle. “You want a coffee?”
The beverage order kicked off an afternoon in Montgomery County scheduled for more serious business — a roundtable discussion with law enforcement to air their thoughts and concerns as drone delivery prepares to take off in Virginia.
Drones pose privacy concerns to residents down below, Warner said. They could be weaponized or crashed. They could be taken over by rogue elements and cause all sorts of new challenges for first responders.
Warner is a strong supporter of the technology, but he wants to make sure the national drone rollout happens responsibly.
“There are still issues we have to work through,” Warner said. “What I want to hear mostly from law enforcement is what do they need from the delivery companies? What do they need from drone manufacturers to make sure that we can do this in the safest way possible?”
Up until now, these conversations have been largely theoretical. But they’re becoming real as Virginia is set to be one of the first states in the country where commercial drone delivery is available.
Wing is launching the service as part of the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program. Virginia was one of 10 localities selected for special permission to drop certain regulations on drone use in order to experiment with new applications.
The idea is to let carefully selected localities experiment with drones now, so lawmakers can see how it works and guide future regulations.
Wing has so far not said when or where in the state it will make the delivery service available to regular residents, but the company has already conducted test flights around Montgomery County.
Friday’s roundtable included representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Christiansburg Fire Department, Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Tech Police Department, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Virginia Tech Rescue Squad and the Radford City Police Department.
“I’m anxious to listen to law enforcement so they can make sure they get their input,” Warner said. “This is not a question of if it’s going to happen. It’s a question of when and who’s going to get the advantage of being — in a sense — the first in the nation.”
Warner also noted that Wing has already started commercial drone delivery flights to the general public in Australia. He said that should help things go more smoothly when it reaches Virginia sometime soon.
“Maybe get some of the kinks out down under first,” he said. “But the fact is this kind of transformative technology, whether we’re talking about unmanned vehicles or unmanned aerial systems, it’s coming. It’s going to change the way we receive goods; it’s going to change the way we interact.”