It's a bird! It's a plane! It's 1,000 calories of deliciousness wrapped into a one-pound bundle!
In a move that will change the dorm-room munchie game forever, Chipotle and Google parent company Alphabet have announced they're beginning a drone delivery pilot program on Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. According to Bloomberg, the project, flying burritos across campus into the waiting arms of students, has approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. It will begin this month and last for several weeks.
The experiment is headed by Project Wing--part of Google X, Google's moonshot division. Like Amazon, Project Wing has the goal of delivering packages by automated drone.
Drone delivery has faced huge obstacles in the United States. In June, the FAA announced new regulations requiring that all unmanned aircraft weigh less than 55 pounds and remain within sight of a pilot at all times. The rules were so restrictive that Seattle-based Amazon decided to move testing of its drone delivery program to the United Kingdom.
On August 29, the FAA announced a new program allowing pilots flying drones for commercial purposes to apply for waivers that would supersede the organization's strict rules, such as keeping the drone within site, not exceeding 400 feet in elevation, and not flying at night.
Project Wing's drones will be allowed to fly autonomously, but the FAA is requiring that pilots remain nearby to take over if necessary. The drones also cannot fly over people.
Virginia Tech is one of six locations chosen by the FAA in 2013 as test sites for flying unmanned drones in an effort to develop future regulations. Mark Blanks, the director of Virginia Tech's Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership Program, told Bloomberg the Alphabet/Chipotle project is "the most complex delivery flight operation that I am aware of that's occurred on U.S. soil."
The Chipotle burritos will be prepared in a food truck on the university's campus, then carried to the hungry recipient. Project Wing's drones will hover out of human reach and lower the burritos--or bowls, or tacos--by way of a cable. There's no official word yet on whether guac is extra.
Project Wing told the publication it chose to partner with a food company because food presents an extra challenge--keeping it warm and steady, since no one wants the nightmare of a cold or ripped burrito. For Chipotle, it could serve as a good way to win back customers. The company has seen decreased sales since late 2015 when hundreds of customers became ill with E. coli and Norovirus after eating at the company's restaurants.
The program is a step in the right direction for the drone industry as a whole. Innovators in the space have been severely limited by regulations, but the program shows a willingness by the FAA to depart from its strict rules on a case-by-case basis.