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August 25, 2020

Meet the team behind America’s first residential drone delivery service

  • , Drone delivery
  • , Life at Wing
  • , United States

News cameras jostled for position as Christiansburg local Todd Joyce used the Wing app to order popcorn and chocolates on October 18, 2019. He made history when he pressed the order button, becoming one of the first in the United States to use a residential drone delivery service. The scene was mirrored at two other homes that day, as the Sensemeier family and the Passek-Collvers joined the Joyces, simultaneously placing three orders to kick off Wing’s first-of-its-kind trial in Virginia. Once the orders were placed, everyone looked up.

Drone delivery can change the way we access the goods we need, transporting food, medicine and other items faster and with less of an impact on our roads, cities, and world.

It takes a team to make a Wing drone delivery happen, especially the first ones. The team that made it possible worked through years and years of test flights, delivering packages to traffic cones arrayed in a field, and continual software improvements. The process probably looked pretty seamless to the crowds gathered last year and to all the customers who have ordered since then. But behind the scenes, Wing’s crew is hard at work, ensuring Christiansburg locals have access to safe, reliable and convenient deliveries. Today, we want to introduce you to the people on the ground that day who make those first deliveries possible.

Bill Vargo | Nest Manager

Bill Vargo joined Wing from another company that pioneered stratospheric drones with 60-foot wingspans. That work landed his name in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum where it is now listed on the Wall of Honor. But for Bill, the bigness or smallness of the drone doesn’t matter. “I treat the little ones the same way I treat big ones, with the attention to detail that these machines require,” he says.

Growing up he was enthralled by anything with an engine that moved — mainly cars in the early days, on account of his dad’s automotive shop. When he graduated high school his interest went skyward, and he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he worked as an aircraft ground technician. When he left the service and began working on drones it wasn’t just a job; it was a growing passion. That background came in handy as Bill became the first person in the U.S. to receive certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform maintenance on delivery drones.

Bill arrived early on launch day. As the Nest Manager, he was responsible for overseeing Wing’s Nest — the facility that houses Wing’s drones and operational equipment. That’s a big job on a normal day, but that day brought the added complexity of dozens of dignitaries and media outlets. After an inspection of the Nest and the facilities, Bill turned to one of his favorite parts of the job: preparing the drones.

Bill thoroughly inspected each drone and placed them on their respective charging pads. Then came the drones’ self-administered pre-flight automated check. At the same time, all 12 drones fired up their propellers, elevated about four feet off the ground, and spun round in unison, testing their systems and electronics. The joy of flight never got old. All systems go. Time to fly.

Ty Moyers | Pilot

Name an aircraft and there’s a pretty good chance Ty Moyers has flown it: Military T-37,T-43, B-52, E-3 AWACS, MQ-1 and MQ-9. Additionally, he had the opportunity to fly a variety of civilian twin and single engine aircraft down to the Piper Cub. Looking back, all Ty can ever remember wanting to do is fly. “In school, if there was a course that even tangentially touched on aviation, I was the first one to sign up,” he said. Ty says it is hard to remember a time when he wasn’t working in the aviation industry. When not flying, he was a mechanic maintaining aircraft and turbine helicopters.

He soloed — a single engine Cessna — at 17. In the Air Force, he was the first squadron commander to lead drone testing for the military, taking the newest unmanned aircraft systems from concept to worldwide combat operations. From there led to operating and managing commercial drone operations around the globe.

Now Ty was getting ready for one more first: the first person to pilot a commercial delivery drone to customers in the U.S. Leading up to launch day, Ty spent weeks in Virginia getting ready for this moment. Up until the day prior he was still conducting checks with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Ty reflecting on this day said, “The thrill of flying never gets old and I am excited and humbled to be a part of this team knowing all the effort, time and dedication that made this event possible”. “Whether flying manned or unmanned missions, there is always just a bit of adrenaline before taking off and this day was no different.”

With the “all-systems-go” call from Nest Manager Bill, it was time to get airborne. With one last check of the systems, the weather, and Wing’s traffic management software OpenSky, Ty was ready to activate the aircraft: “All stations be advised that we’ll be commencing operations at this time”.

Michael Gutierrez— Pick Packer

As the drone elevated, Michael Gutierrez watched nearby. As the Pick Packer for the day, Michael was in charge of retrieving the goods, boxing them up, and loading them onto the drone. As the drone approached his location and began to hover, Michael was ready. Michael fulfilled the first orders: chocolate and popcorn, cough medicine, and a FedEx Express parcel containing a winter vest.

Attaching the packages to the pill suspended from the drone above was easy. But watching the packages ascend to the hovering drone was always nerve wracking. Michael didn’t breathe easy until he heard that familiar, reassuring click, “there is always something extremely satisfying about the package clicking into the hovering drone’s belly,” Michael said.

Perhaps that satisfaction came from the many hours Michael spent hovering above the ground himself. But when he competed for an Army aviation scholarship in high school, things kind of took off. Most other branches of the military first teach you to fly a plane. Not the Army — they start you on a helicopter. After learning the equivalent of a local news chopper, Michael found himself in a Blackhawk flying MEDEVAC missions. This wasn’t something his younger self had ever imagined, but Michael grew to love the allure of flying. “There’s a certain level of freedom when you’re in the sky,” Michael said.

That sense of freedom crossed Michael’s mind as he watched the drone secure the package, climb to its cruising altitude, and speed away at 65 miles per hour. At that speed, he lost sight of the drone pretty quickly. Within 30 seconds it was gone.

Janessa Link — Operations Engineer

From an elevated perch in Christiansburg, Janessa Link had a perfect vantage point for the first flights.

Janessa peered out over a town she had gotten to know pretty well. In the months prior, she’d practically become a local, eating at many restaurants in town at least once, and spending her weekends hiking in the famed local Blue Ridge Mountains.

She was integral in setting up the Wing site and flight operations in Christiansburg — verified the accuracy of the Wing computer models and refined new workflows to support the merchant partners. As a Part 107 pilot, she conducted the end-to-end live flight check-out of the site prior to commercial launch.

Janessa had never shied away from assignments in the field. She’d spent three months living in a tent on a glacier in the middle of Antarctica in her former career as a geological surveyor. She’d also spent more than enough time roughing it on offshore oil rigs. So the Christiansburg vantage point was just fine, especially on a crisp fall day.

“It wasn’t like watching a plane, where the lack of reference points makes judging speed hard,” Janessa said. “Especially with the elevation advantage, I was able to see the drone’s flight with a perspective few others had.” With the delivery complete, Janessa smiled as the drone sped back to the Nest at twice the speed of traffic on nearby Pepper’s Ferry Road.

The Next Generation of Firsts

These first flights were completed in under ten minutes. The drones delivered their goods, flew back to the Nest, and returned to their charging pads. Eventually, the crowds dispersed. Bill’s Nest returned to normal. Ty got ready for the next mission. Michael’s picking shift ended. Janessa climbed down from the perch.

With each Wing delivery, we gain a clearer view of a future in which we’ll move goods around smarter, faster, and more responsibly by harnessing the sky. Below, there’s less congestion, fewer emissions, and more convenience. That’s the future Wing is working toward, developing and deploying new technologies to help us get there.

Drone delivery can help overcome barriers to going out, whether someone is taking care of children, fighting off a cold, working from home or they’ve stopped driving due to age. Even the Passek-Collver family, one of those first customers who placed an order on launch day, came up with a way to use this technology to provide library books to students during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Starting in August, these pioneering machines, and the stories of those who made these first flights possible, will be part of the collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where museum goers can learn more about drones and drone delivery. And in their new home, these drones will hopefully serve to inspire the next generation of firsts yet to be realized.