Virginia Tech is teaming up with Google researchers and Chipotle Mexican Grill to test burrito drone delivery on a select group of students.
Google hopes to conduct hundreds of test flights as part of its Project Wing beginning this month. They will not be open to the public or media, according to Project Wing spokeswoman Jacquelyn Miller.
The selected customers, who were chosen because they work near the undisclosed test site, will stand at a kiosk and punch in their orders, Miller said. The burritos will be prepared at a food truck “several hundred meters” away, loaded onto a drone and flown to the customers. The drones will then hover in the sky and lower the meals down from a significant height with a tether and winch.
Miller said burritos were chosen because they pose serious, real-world challenges by being time and temperature sensitive. If Google can figure out how to deliver lunch to the masses, then other packages such as medicines will be easier to pull off in the future.
This will be Google’s first time offering drone delivery to non-Google employees in the U.S., so the company plans to gather data on everything from flight logs to the way customers respond to receiving lunch from the skies.
“A lunchtime rush of burrito orders will crank up the operational pressure of multiple orders coming in during a short period of time,” Astro Teller, who leads the team conducting the research as part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, wrote in a post on Medium. “In future tests, we could add a broader range of items, like drinks, which will push us to handle more weight, keep packages carefully balanced, and manage combinations of items on a single flight.”
The drones are part of Google’s Project Wing initiative. A slew of tech giants, most notably Amazon, have been talking for years about the potential game-changing nature of delivery services by drone, but the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to clear the way for widespread testing.
Virginia Tech, which is part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, was selected by the FAA in 2013 to be one of six designated unmanned aircraft test sites. The designation removed some of the red tape researchers have to go through before receiving approval for flights.
Miller said Google considered all six test sites before deciding to go with Tech.
Google will own and operate the burrito drones, while Tech will offer safety oversight, according to MAAP director Mark Blanks.
Neither Blanks nor Miller would comment on where the experiment will take place, only saying it will be a closed site without public access on university-owned property. In the past, the university has conducted drone experiments at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road on the edge of campus or Kentland Farm, about 8 miles away.
“Last year while discussing the entrepreneurial spirit at Virginia Tech, I jokingly speculated we might one day have quadcopters delivering ramen noodles around campus — apparently I wasn’t off by much,” Tech President Tim Sands said in a university news release.