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Watch the First Government-Approved Drone Delivery

The timing was ironic, happening the same day drones interfered with rescue helicopters in California.

The Federal Aviation Administration banned drones from distance delivery in February, but it made an exception on Friday.

Drones from the private company Flirtey carried medicine to a health clinic in rural Virginia. It made three trips to carry ten pounds of medicine. The delivery was part of a drone demonstration with NASA, which flew the medicine to a local airport before it was carried by Flirtey’s drone to the clinic.

The timing of the Virginia delivery was ironic. On the same day, five unauthorized drones interfered with rescue helicopters in California. Local authorities blamed the drones for delaying attempts to dump water on a wildfire that jumped a highway.

When contacted by Re/code, Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeny said he hadn’t seen the California wildfire news. He pointed out that the airport Flirtey flew its drones from stayed open to plane landings during that time. “The reason that’s important is because it shows drones can operate safely around other aircrafts,” Sweeny said.

The company picked a location at the far end of the airport, had observers watching the runways and communicated regularly with the airport tower. “I think now that we’ve shown this can be done safely and reliably, others will follow,” Sweeny said. He hopes to repeat the demonstration next year, but says there’s nothing officially planned yet.

While regulators debate the merits of public drone traffic, Flirtey is bullish on the potential of drones to transform local logistics and delivery and called the FAA approved event a “Kitty Hawk” moment. The pop-up clinic that participated in the demonstration is run by the Remote Area Medical group, which sends teams of health practitioners and volunteers to rural areas to serve people in the surrounding community. It usually doesn’t have all the medications customers need because nearest pharmacies are far away. As drone delivery technology develops it could be a viable alternative.

Sweeny grew impassioned when responding to critics who said it would be easier to just drive the supplies. “People come from across the state to get free health care [at the annual free clinic] and you have huge traffic congestion,” Sweeny said to Re/code. “It’s just not practical if you need urgent medication to send it by car when the road itself could be blocked. If there’s not medication on site and someone has to drive to a pharmacy, fill it and come back it can take up to a day — we did it in 30 minutes.”

He sees the drone demonstration as proof that drones can be used to deliver crucial supplies when driving isn’t optimal, whether that’s because of flooded roads, conflict zones, traffic jams or other issues.

You can watch Flirtey’s flight below:

This article originally appeared on

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