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Virginia School District Will Use Drones to Deliver Summer Reading

Montgomery County has partnered with Google’s Wing service to distribute library books

Google's Wing drones can carry packages weighing up to three pounds. (Courtesy of Wing)
smithsonianmag.com

When Montgomery County Public Schools in southwestern Virginia transitioned to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the district used school buses to deliver daily meals—and reading material—to students’ homes. But now that the academic year is over, the county has adopted an alternative delivery method: drones.

As Rachel Lerman reports for the Washington Post, the Montgomery County school system is located in Christiansburg, where Google’s drone delivery division, Wing, launched its services last October. Offered as a commercial service in partnership with such businesses as FedEx and Walgreens, Wing soon found a satisfied customer in Blacksburg Middle School librarian Kelly Passek, who petitioned the company to help send students library books. Wing’s Virginia head of operations, Keith Heyde, enthusiastically agreed.

“My mom’s a librarian, so reading has been very important for me personally,” Heyde tells Jen Cardone of local broadcast station WDBJ7. “If we can provide a little bit of extra access during the summer and challenges during COVID-19, that’s a win.”

Wing’s yellow-and-white delivery drone blends elements of airplanes and quadcopters, or helicopter propelled by four rotors. Per the Post’s Michael Laris, the ten-pound drones travel at a speed of more than 70 miles per hour and can carry packages weighing up to three pounds.

When a drone reaches its destination, it doesn’t land to make a delivery. Instead, wrote Mike Murphy for Quartz in September 2019, the device hovers about 23 feet in the air and lowers the package down on a cable.

Last Thursday, months of preparation culminated in the Wing-Montgomery County partnership’s first round of 18 drone-delivered books, reports WDBJ7. The first book sent to a student was Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I classic All Quiet on the Western Front, according to a statement.

“I think kids are going to be just thrilled to learn that they are going to be the first in the world to receive a library book by drone,” Passek tells the Washington Post.

Christianburg residents can opt in to drone delivery if their home has a suitable “delivery zone”—for instance, a yard or front walkway—where the package can be safely lowered onto the ground. According to Wing’s website, the drones are largely autonomous, running on unmanned traffic management software that plans an obstacle-free route and locates a safe delivery location, but remain overseen by pilots.

Per the Post, about 600 students live in neighborhoods eligible for Wing’s library book delivery service. Passek is doing the legwork behind the scenes, receiving book requests through a form, locating and packing up titles, and taking them to Wing’s facility for delivery. Students who receive drone-delivered books will be able to keep them until schools open again in the fall.

“Drone delivery is allowing us a way to keep contact with our students and to keep providing them with access to our library resources, which are so necessary for them,” Passek tells WDBJ7. “I am thrilled that so many students have taken advantage already and really hope that they can continue on all summer long requesting books by drone.”

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