An audience including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, representatives from the United Nations, state legislators, aviation and business leaders, and venture capitalists attended the July 17 flights, according to Jack Kennedy, the Clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and the City of Norton, who spoke with Unmanned Aerial Online following the event, dubbed “Let’s Fly Wisely.”
Calling it a “Kitty Hawk moment,” Kennedy says the event builds upon Wise County’s long history with aerospace technology, including a partnership with NASA, which has been offering its DEVELOP National Program – providing an outlet for youth to study satellite remote sensing – in the county for the past 15 years.
Under FAA authorization through the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) at Virginia Tech (one of the country’s six FAA-selected UAS test sites), NASA’s Langley Research Center and drone-delivery company Flirtey Inc. partnered to aerially deliver medical supplies to a clinic at the Wise County Fairgrounds.
According to a press release from NASA, it remotely flew – beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) – a Cirrus SR22 plane, “a UAS technology testbed” that maintained a pilot on board (for safety purposes), from an airport in Tazewell County, where the aircraft was loaded with 10 lbs. of medical supplies, to Wise County’s Lonesome Pine Airport, where Flirtey then took over.
Over the next two hours, Flirtey used its delivery hexacopter to bring 24 packages of supplies to the clinic, sponsored by Remote Area Medical and the Health Wagon. The clinic retrieved the deliveries via tether, brought the supplies to patients and, thus, successfully concluded the real-life delivery via UAS. A Virginia Tech release notes that both aircraft flew a total of over 40 combined miles.
According to NASA, this experience provides the Langley Research Center an outlet to conduct “critical research and mission exploration” for the Cirus SR22 and “to look at the safety case for use of UAS to deliver supplies to remote areas, including the transfer from aircraft to small drones.”
Last year, Australia-based Flirtey announced a research and development partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno, which would become the U.S. headquarters for the company, having already conducted textbook deliveries via drones in Australia.
Kennedy, who says he has become involved with UAS technology through his role on the board of directors of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, foresees a bright future for Wise County in terms of a hub for countrywide UAS development.
“We’re looking at new technologies and new industries emerging from an economic development standpoint,” he says. The goal, he explains, is “to pursue active applications that may be morphed into a nationwide application” and, thus, further the UAS industry in the U.S.
“We want to stay ahead of this curve; we’re determined to stay ahead of this curve,” Kennedy says. “We realize if we relax, others will pass us by.”
Gov. McAuliffe also notes the urgency of investing in and taking a role in the burgeoning technology. ‘The commonwealth had the foresight to invest in unmanned aerial systems testing to build a new Virginia economy focused on innovation, diversification and new technology,” he says in a release.
The “historic flights” of the Let’s Fly Wisely event, he explains, “are paving the way for unmanned aircraft to join traditional aircraft in the safest, most trafficked skies in the world for the benefit of all our citizens.”
As for future plans for similar events, Kennedy notes, the door is wide open in Wise County.
“We will roll out the red carpet for them if they have applications or want to do testing and research here,” he says.
Rose Mooney, MAAP’s executive director, explains in a release that although there exist “many logistical and safety concerns that would need to be resolved before these deliveries could become routine,” the event proved “the capabilities of this technology and its value to the public.”