A national pilot program to test drone usage is on track to deliver food in Wake County.
The Federal Aviation Administration selected 10 agencies and communities from nearly 200 applicants to help study drone use. The North Carolina Department of Transportation made the list with a proposal to test delivery of medical supplies.
Holly Springs became a partner for consumer delivery.
“I definitely jumped on it, I took a long shot as soon as I heard the program was created. I got very excited, and we submitted our application to be a part of it to be a secondary applicant and we formed a team and we approached DOT,” said Aaron Levitt, the town’s assistant director of engineering.
“We are pumped. I think it’s really exciting. What we’re talking about is expanding municipal services, and bringing this technology to a town that most people in the country have never heard of before. So it’s really going to put us on the map and put us out there as an innovative and high-tech town, and a growing town.”
The town council reviewed a proposal for drone delivery at its July 17 meeting, and will hear from representatives of the Icelandic company Flytrex at its Aug. 7 meeting. Flytrex currently has 23 drop locations around the city center of Reykjavik where people can receive orders within four to five minutes.
“Our project consists of a drone delivery company coming into town, setting up near a local restaurant, and then those businesses can actually utilize the drones. We’re talking average flight times of 3 minutes, which can beat traffic by a lot,” Levitt said.
“Every drone in the air is going to be one less car on the street, once we start delivering goods, so it won’t improve capacity on the roads but it will decrease demand on the roads.”
NCDOT aviation spokesperson James Pearce said the partnership with Holly Springs and the alternate delivery avenue will be a big part of his division’s testing.
“One thing that’s really interesting about the Holly Springs part of it is how similar food delivery and medical equipment delivery is. You have to keep things level and secure and at a certain temperature, they have to get there within a certain amount of time,” Pearce said.
“By using food and medical supplies, we’re testing the same types of operations,” he said.
“We’re trying to find different applications that can test how well they work, what needs to be changed in the future, when it does come time for FAA rule-making around drones, what rules do we need to have?”
The Holly Springs engineers said the town will take a crawl, then walk, then run approach. They plan to start with deliveries within the line of sight of whichever restaurant they choose, and have a phased approach to gradually expand beyond that and eventually add night flights and flights over people.
Levitt said the program will develop “roadways in the sky” in order to route drone traffic over wooded areas as much as possible and avoid crossing roads as much as possible.
“That’s all part of what this program is about. The FAA is going to be scrutinizing all of these steps as we try to take them, and work with us, but also keeping us accountable,” he said.
Holly Springs began using drones in 2014 for construction inspection and surveying purposes. There are seven town employees who went through a training program in order to serve different departments.