Chipotle is participating in testing food delivery via drones on the campus of Virginia Tech, which the company says could eventually allow it to reach more customers in remote locations.
Through a partnership with Google parent company Alphabet X’s Project Wing, the unmanned aerial vehicles will deliver food prepared by Chipotle on site in a food truck to a small group of students and employees of Virginia Tech over a period of several days.
“We are always looking for ways to better serve our customers and eager to see how aerial delivery could be a part of that in the years to come, allowing us to reach more customers in remote locations,” Chipotle public relations and communications manager Danielle Moore says in an email. “We anticipate learning a lot about if and how customers would like to receive their Chipotle meals by air.”
Chipotle would not be the first quick-service restaurant testing out food delivery with drones, as Domino’s U.K. experimented with what it calls the “Domicopter” for promotional purposes.
In the U.S., commercial uses are limited to situations where the pilot is within view of the drone, and the drone cannot fly over anyone not involved in the transaction, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The food delivery testing will be Project Wing’s first tests involving external users in the U.S., and its first collaboration with an FAA-approved unmanned aircraft test site. Virginia Tech is one of six unmanned aircraft system test site operators, along with the University of Alaska, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, North Dakota Department of Commerce, the State of Nevada, and Texas A&M University.
“Now, you might be wondering how we decided to deliver food. It’s simple: our goal is to maximize learning, and food delivery poses a rich set of operating challenges that few other testing scenarios have,” says Astro Teller, X’s CEO and “Captain of Moonshoots,” in an online statement. “A lunchtime rush of burrito orders will crank up the operational pressure of multiple orders coming in during a short period of time. We’ll get to test how to package sensitive cargo and how well it endures the journey (after all, everyone wants their meal hot and in the right shape).”
For future tests, Project Wing may incorporate a broader range of items into the delivery process, such as drinks, which researchers note could add to the difficulty of the process.
“Package delivery by drone, especially for rapid turnaround operations like food delivery, is one of the most challenging applications of this technology,” says Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Partnership, in a statement. “Efficient operations require the aircraft to be operated beyond visual line of sight of the pilot, over densely populated areas, and with many aircraft in the air at the same time. This early stage research effort with Project Wing will address many of the numerous policy and safety issues that are currently under development across the industry and by the FAA.”
By Alex Dixon