At the beginning of this decade, the movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” came out — and promptly bombed at the box office although it later went on to win a cult audience of devotees who still swear that the action-comedy was ahead of its time conceptually.
In the movie, a dweebish young man — the title character Scott Pilgrim — becomes infatuated with a young woman he meets at a party. He learns that Ramona Flowers works for a package delivery service, so he strategizes a sure-fire way to meet her: He makes a random purchase online, then sits by the door waiting for Ramona to show up to deliver it — whereupon he asks her out. From there, the movie’s central plot line plays out — to win Ramona’s affection, Scott has to battle her “seven evil exes” video-game style – but we’re not really concerned about that. Here’s the part that interests us: If a modern-day Scott Pilgrim lived in Christiansburg and sat by the door waiting for his prospective love interest to knock on his door, he’d be out of luck. Instead, he might only hear a soft whir and a whoosh overhead — as a drone drops his package onto his front lawn and then flies away.
There are lots of ways to measure the pace of technological change. Here’s one of them: A movie that came out just nine years ago has already had one of its central plot points rendered out of date — at least in Christiansburg, where last week Wing Aviation launched the first residential package delivery service by drone in the United States.
OK, technically, any Scott Pilgrim in Christiansburg could still meet his Ramona Flowers. For now, this is a trial run, limited to three companies (FedEx, Walgreen’s and the Blacksburg store Sugar Magnolia) and a roughly six-mile delivery zone around Wing’s “nest” just off Peppers Ferry Road. Make no mistake, though: Drone deliveries are coming. The key words here are “first residential package delivery in the United States.”
Wing — a sister company of Google — started testing residential package delivery in Australia back in 2014. The Israeli company Flytrex launched what it billed as the world’s first regular residential drone deliveries in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2017. Earlier this year — after 3,000 test deliveries Down Under — Wing formally launched a regular service of residential package delivery in both suburban Canberra, Australia and Helsinki, Finland. It was no accident that a lot of the Wing officials on hand for the Christiansburg launch spoke with Australian accents. And drones are already at work delivering lots of things all over the world — most famously medicines. The world’s first delivery of medicine by drone took place in Wise County in 2015. That was a demonstration, but a California-based company, Zipline International, has been routinely delivering medicine via drones in Rwanda since 2016 and now has expanded to Ghana. Correction: Drone deliveries aren’t just coming, they’re already here.
The real question seems to be how quickly they will spread. Will drone delivery be a niche service, or the customary way packages (well, small ones) will get delivered in the future? Grandpa, tell me again about the time when people actually came to your house to deliver your packages.
Here’s what we do know: Wing’s Australian branch predicts that by 2030 perhaps one in four carry-out orders for food will be delivered by drone. Perhaps there’s a certain novelty — even frivolity — to your pizza delivered by drone. We live in a world that expects instant gratification and drones that can fly over traffic jams — the ones in Christiansburg will go about 65 miles per hour — can make the “instant” part of that gratification a little more instantaneous. Yariv Bash, founder of the Flytrex that’s behind the deliveries in Iceland, told the BBC last year: “Once you saw an iPhone, you realized that it is the future. I believe the first time a neighbor of yours orders his bottle of wine that he forgot for dinner and he gets it in 15 minutes, that’s it, you want it.” Indeed, Tom Raub, co-owner of Sugar Magnolia, joked that he expects to do “a big husband business” with men who forget anniversary presents — and order then at the last minute, delivered by drone. “Oh, I didn’t forget,” he envisions a husband saying as the drone drops off its package, “I didn’t forget — I planned this!”
All kidding aside, there’s some serious stuff to think about here. Wing predicts that drones may help increase sales for participating businesses by 27%. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recently headlined: “Drone funding is fast and furious.” It counted some $4.9 billion being invested into the drone industry and related robotics fields. Forbes magazine — another serious student of the economy — points out that drones are cheaper, and faster, than human delivery people. That helps somebody’s bottom line — but also potentially puts some people out of work. Lots of jobs are being automated away; here are some more — mostly delivery drivers. Virginia Tech has retired its slogan “invent the future.” That’s too bad, because it’s more true now than it was when Tech used it. A lot of the work on self-driving vehicles is being done in the New River Valley. So, too, now are drone deliveries. A lot of the future really is being invented right here. We just don’t know the full implications of all that yet.
We’ll hazard a hopeful guess, though: Drones are potentially a technology that can have a unique benefit for rural areas. We were promised that computers would mean “the death of distance” and lead to a rural renaissance as some people would live anywhere they wanted and work long-distance. That hasn’t really worked out as advertised. We have some telecommuters, but mostly technology has led to just the opposite — as tech jobs cluster in a relatively handful of metro areas. Drones, though, seem unique suited to help rural areas. Medical deliveries are obviously a big one, as seen from Wise County to Africa. Even in not-so-rural Christiansburg, if you’re sick, that’s probably not the best time to go to Walgreen’s for medicine —but maybe a great time to have Walgreen’s drone the medicine to you. Wide-open rural areas also are uniquely suited for drone testing. Both Wise County and Covington now have nascent drone-testing sectors. A Florida drone company recently announced it would create 25 jobs at a drone-testing operation in Covington — 25 tech jobs anywhere in western Virginia are kind of a big deal.
We don’t know what a future Scott Pilgrim will do, but it’s a good guess that the future Ramona Flowers may not be delivering packages. She’ll be operating a drone.