Today, we announced that the aircraft used for the first commercial drone delivery to a U.S. home has joined our collection. The drone, built and operated by Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, delivered a winter vest to the home of residents of Christiansburg, Virginia. During this history-making trip on October 18, 2019, Wing delivery drone No. A1229 flew 2.32 miles to make the delivery from Wing’s Christiansburg site to a local home, making the delivery in 2 minutes and 50 seconds.
The aircraft has two forward propellers and 12 vertical propellers, which allow the aircraft to both travel at high speeds and stop to hover while delivering packages from a tether. The 10-pound aircraft flies completely autonomously, routed to specific locations using software and GPS, and makes deliveries without coming within 20 feet of people on the ground. It is also the only system certified by the FAA to safely deliver small packages in customers’ yards in relatively small areas.
When Wing launched service in October 2019, they had three collaborators on board to make deliveries for — FedEx Express, Walgreens and local Christiansburg company Sugar Magnolia. The drone that has joined our collection delivered products from all three companies during its tenure in the Wing fleet.
As the newest artifact in our collection, this drone helps us tell the story of how aviation can reshape how we live and work in our communities by moving more efficiently over short distances without cumbersome infrastructure. It will eventually be displayed in the upcoming Allan and Shelley Holt Innovations Gallery.
We recently spoke with Adam Woodworth, Wing’s chief technology officer, about his work at Wing, his passion for aviation, and how it feels to have a project he worked on join the Smithsonian collection.
What about your work at Wing most excites you?
I certainly believe that drone delivery will benefit society in profound ways, but I think my core belief goes beyond that.
Aviation is a fundamentally rare thing. Ask people when they first rode in an airplane, and most people can tell you all about it. Everybody has a story about the first time they flew somewhere because flying is rare. Ask anybody the same question about riding in a car, and nobody will be able to tell you the answer to that. Because that form of travel is normalized; it’s part of everyday life. To me, it’s a shame that everybody, everyday doesn’t get to participate in aviation. For one, airplanes are cool. And two, flying is a very efficient way to move around.
So I saw the commercial use of drones as the gateway to introduce aviation to everyone in a way that I think hasn’t been possible before. To work on a project that could enable everybody to see the benefits of flying things is just an incredible opportunity.
So now we have to ask – where did you go the first time you flew in an airplane?
It was actually to Washington, DC, to visit the National Air and Space Museum? I was on a field trip with my dad and it’s one of the more memorable experiences that I’ve had. I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I remember going to the gift shop and picking out a paper Spitfire model. When we got back, I must have looked at it for six months, deciding when or how I would build it -- or if I should ever take it out of the packaging. I kept it at my grandparents’ house because I didn’t want to accidentally damage it.
Now, as a dad, I’ve had the joy of getting to share those same sort of early aviation experiences with my daughter. I recently built her a remote control bird that we take to the field and fly most weekends.
Did you always know you wanted to work in aviation?
Yes, it was always going to be aviation. My dad built a special model rocket to celebrate my birth. It was next to the crib when they brought me home from the hospital. So on day 3 or 4 of life, I was introduced to flying stuff. My grandfather flew B-25s in WWII and he was always into aviation. So I just kind of grew up around the stuff. I was always building something or tinkering down in the shop.
When I was a little kid swooshing an X-Wing around my bedroom, it was because I wanted it to fly. I saw all these things that flew on TV shows, and I had toys that were representations of those -- but they didn’t actually fly. To this day, my biggest hobby outside of work is building model airplanes. I’ve built more than a few Star Wars-inspired planes, space shuttles and LEGO-style helicopters. I think a lot of my hobby now is just making those dreams I had as a kid real. So making a LEGO airplane actually fly, making the X-Wing actually fly. I think I get the most joy out of that process of building and experimentation. Model aviation is an amazing hobby and community that has influenced me throughout my life.
How did you get started at Wing?
I entered the workforce when commercial drones were an emerging concept. What appealed to me was the speed of iteration in the industry. When I was a kid reading magazines, I saw test pilots and engineers working on dozens of cool, bizarre airplanes. There were all the X-Planes from the 50s and 60s, and just the rapid innovation that happened at that point in the aviation industry. But by the time I was entering the workforce, that pace of crewed aviation felt like it slowed down a bit. The changes were more iterative. I saw the drone industry as a way to work on a different airplane every year, and concepts that nobody had tried before. So I think seeing a space in the industry where you could really have the ability to execute true innovation was what enticed me to do drones, and ultimately Wing.
What advice do you have for young inventors, innovators, and aviation geeks who want a career in aviation?
Engineering is a science of practice. You need to practice. Find ways to experience aviation in any way you can, whether that’s building a model airplane, going to watch airplanes at your local airport, taking a flying lesson or just reading up on aviation. It’s about that participation. Airplane people love talking about airplanes. I would just encourage everyone to reach out to whatever resources they see and ask questions — including to us. They’re likely to get pretty fulfilling answers.
Do you have a favorite artifact or exhibit to see at Air and Space?
For me, I think it’s more just the fact that all these things were real. Being a little kid, having the books and looking at pictures of the Bell X-1 or the Spirit of St. Louis, they’re almost like mythical characters. So in many ways, the National Air and Space Museum for me was like going to Disney World and meeting Mickey Mouse. It’s the place where the real things are. You got to see them and experience that sort of aviation celebrity.
What does it mean to you to have Wing’s drone added to the National Air and Space Museum collection?
It’s cool to think about how many hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of people will eventually get to see that physical object. It’s not a picture or story on a website. It’s the real thing that flew around and did stuff. My first visit to the National Air and Space Museum as a kid was a kind of defining moment for me. It’s pretty cool to think that a piece of my career, a piece of my passion is now preserved for another generation of people to get inspired