A fully fledged drone service dropping items off across the US is a ways off yet, but the concept has now edged a little closer to reality with 7-Eleven carrying out the nation's first drone delivery to a customer's home. The retailer teamed up with drone startup Flirtey to complete the shipment, whose flying robot was loaded up with Slurpees and other snacks to give convenience store a new kind of meaning.
The deliveries began at a 7-Eleven store in Reno, Nevada, a state where Flirtey has set up shop with an office at the University of Nevada, looking to grow its technology at one of just six federally approved drone testing sites in the US.
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A chicken sandwich, donuts, hot coffee, Slurpees and candy were packed into a purpose-built container and carried autonomously by a Flirtey drone across two separate deliveries to a customer's nearby home. Guided by GPS, the drone hovered over the property once it arrived and slowly lowered the package into the backyard for retrieval, with the delivery taking place over just a few minutes.
While the autonomous delivery of everyday items is an impressive feat, some serious roadblocks still remain before we see a service like this rolled out on a wider scale. Chief among them are laws announced last month prohibiting commercial drones to be flown where operators cannot see them, along with rules making it illegal to operate more than one drone at the same time.
But Flirtey has been nothing if not proactive. Strict rules like those mentioned above have made it difficult for the drone delivery industry to forge any real inroads, but the Australian startup as managed to find some wriggle room amongst all that red tape, while bigger players like Amazon and Google seem content waiting for it to clear.
Last year it carried out the first federally-approved drone delivery by carrying medical supplies to a rural clinic in Virginia, earlier this year completed the first urban drone delivery and then last month the first ship-to-shore drone delivery to demonstrate the potential of using the aircraft for disaster relief. It has formed important partnerships with NASA, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous System and now the world's largest convenience retailer in 7-Eleven which, as it turns out, has no less than 10,700 stores across North America.
"It was the first few deliveries of our service with the key being we will scale up incrementally from here," Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny explains to Gizmag. "For now we can operate in line of sight, there are 1,500, homes within one mile (1.6 km) of this store. And then as we expand beyond line of sight it opens up to more and more people across the country. 7-Eleven has over 10,000 stores in North America, compared to Amazon which has fewer than 100 distribution centers so this partnership gives us a huge national footprint and we can scale incrementally from here."
So while still limited, teaming up with such an omnipresent business with countless homes in its line of sight could give Flirtey freedom to continue testing its autonomous drone technology in the real-world, all while helping familiarize more people with the concept of delivery by flying robot. Sweeny wouldn't offer a precise timeframe on when the service might be expanded to other stores, but says the flights will become more routine in Reno over the next little while.
"We will build up to that incrementally and the next step is to start offering drone delivery on demand to a select number of houses regularly in the coming months," he says.
You can see a video of the delivery below.