With 1st food delivery, Loudoun Co. drone test center navigates strict DC airspace

drone xelevate food delivery
Celebrating the first proof-of-concept food delivery in Northern Virginia. (Courtesy Preston Huntington)

It will be awhile before you’ll be able to order food and have a drone deliver it to you in Northern Virginia, but it has been done for the first time, locally.

A brisket sandwich from Leesburg restaurant Roots 657 was delivered by drone to a nearby antiques store last week.

“This whole presentation was to prove that drone delivery is possible in a place like Washington, D.C. or Northern Virginia, where there’s the most complicating airspace in the United States,” said Preston Huntington, client relations manager for Xelevate, an unmanned flight training center set to open Oct. 20 near Lucketts.

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With the national capital region’s highly restricted airspace, Huntington said the partnership with drone manufacturer Vayu Aerospace will give companies the chance to experiment with new technologies, while unmanned aircraft systems infrastructure continues to develop.

Current Federal Aviation Administration rules require drone deliveries be within a visual line of sight.

“These are all to show an entity like the FAA, and the community, that this can happen, and we can do it safely in a way that doesn’t affect the average human being,” Huntington said. “These proofs of concept are ways to show the FAA that the procedures and processes to do this are available.”

While drone delivery is now available in portions of the Christiansburg, Virginia, area, in the congested D.C. region, commercial drone flights are still in the proof of concept stage.

“If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere,” said Huntington.

As the technology continues to improve, businesses will be able to implement changes: “There are conversations going on right now about the beyond-visual-line-of-sight concept, and what we’d do when the technology has evolved to where we don’t necessarily have eyes on it,” Huntington said.

“There will always be a pilot, there will always be ways to mitigate problems and procedures, just like in real aircraft,” he said.

With the opening of the 66-acre Xelevate facility, the goal is to develop collaboration in the drone community: “We want to bring American companies together and really drive innovation forward, both on the federal side and the commercial side.”

Huntington said he believes the public perception about the safety and possibilities related to drones is improving.

“We met a lot of pushback in the beginning when we set up our facility out in western Loudoun County — there’s a very specific way of life out there. But we made it a point to interact with our community and make friends with our neighbors, and try to spread the goodness of what this technology can do for society, moving forward.”

Huntington can’t yet predict when food might be delivered by drones on a day-to-day basis in Northern Virginia.

“As long as we can show that we could do this in a safe and reliable way, I think the public perception will change, and I think they’ll be very accepting of it in the future,” he said.


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