School libraries are keeping their patrons safe with policies like in-library social distancing and curbside pickup. Still, many libraries are struggling to manage the health risks of in-person library visits.
Some students live in rural areas, far from their local libraries. Others don’t have internet access, keeping them from accessing digital books. For these students, it seems like there may be no safe way to access those books.
One Virginia librarian is pioneering a new approach to book loans — autonomous drone delivery.
School district partners with drone company to deliver books
During the school year, the schools in Montgomery County, Virginia, used buses to deliver daily meals and reading materials to students’ homes. Now that the school year is over, district librarians are adopting a new approach.
Kelly Passek, the Blacksburg Middle School librarian, is behind a drone delivery service bringing books directly to students in the county school district. Passek was inspired by Wing, the Alphabet-owned technology company that uses drones to deliver food and other essentials to customers in the Virginia area. The service has been around since 2014, but its popularity has exploded in recent months.
While it’s less safe to eat out or make a trip to the grocery store, drones can safely deliver food or medications. They also don’t risk the spread of COVID-19 between delivery person and recipient. When Passek reached out to Wing to start a drone-powered book delivery service, the company’s local leaders enthusiastically agreed.
The district’s book delivery service started in a limited capacity in early June. Now, students in the county have access to the library’s full range of books — more than 150,000 titles in total.
It will likely go a long way in ensuring that students can continue to read during the pandemic. 25 percent of students report that homework is the biggest source of stress in their life. Continued access to reading and study materials may take some of the pressure off students.
The service is also likely to be a big boon for students and parents without internet access. Many school libraries can provide ebooks to quarantined students. But the county, which is in the western part of the state, is mostly rural. As a result, internet access is “nonexistent” in some area communities.
How the district delivers books directly to students
Passek coordinates the deliveries with Wing. Students request books using an online form. Passek pulls the books and packs them in drone-ready delivery boxes. She then drops them off with Wing, which handles the rest of the delivery.
The drones use specialized software that plans an air traffic-free route that will get them to their destination. Once there, the drones hover above a clear space — like a driveway or empty yard — and use a rope to lower the delivery to the ground. So long as a student’s home has a suitable “runway,” they can opt-in to the program.
Wing’s drones are mostly autonomous, though professional pilots oversee them while they’re in the air.
Drones will likely be essential to life during COVID-19
The service is part of a new trend towards autonomous drone delivery that is being seen around the world. Delivery companies have used experimental drones in the past, but the tech hadn’t caught on until now. The pressure of COVID-19 seems to be changing the use of drones across the economy.
Many existing, limited drone programs have expanded their services over the past few months. The tech is being used to reduce contact between delivery people. In some areas, drones are also delivering to underserved communities, like rural First Nation communities in Canada.
Non-drone based delivery services cut down on interpersonal contact. However, they may not be enough for those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID. Some delivery services also struggle to serve rural areas.
Drone-based delivery can solve both of these problems — and is sometimes even faster than delivery by car. Once the crisis is over, it may remain a fixture of normal life.