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Chipotle Turns to Flying Robots for Burrito Delivery

Food-by-drone is coming to a college campus

Project Wing / X

The dreams of every hungry college student hang in the balance later this month when a new method of food delivery gets put to the test at Virginia Tech. A partnership between the university, Google's parent company Alphabet, and the beleaguered fast-casual burrito chain Chipotle will offer customers drone delivery of burritos, but only for a few weeks, Bloomberg reports.

The drones will track the condition of the food upon arrival.

This is a big step for unmanned delivery in the U.S., and not just for food delivery. The operation, dubbed "Project Wing," required approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which understandably has a bucket of rules for unmanned aircraft, including no flying over people (participants in this delivery test will be shielded from above).

The drones used in Project Wing will be guided by software and overseen by on-the-ground human pilots as they deliver burritos from a nearby Chipotle food truck. The devices will be tracked to determine how well they function, how the navigation systems perform, and, most importantly, the condition of the food upon arrival.

But why practice on burritos, and why partner with Chipotle? On the surface, this could be another stunt from Chipotle meant curry favor with millennials and college kids who are pulling away from the brand (see also) or to distract from the slew of DOH issues Chipotle has experienced in the last year. The brand previously made attempts to facilitate delivery to college campuses through a partnership with Tapingo, but drone delivery takes things to a whole new level.

Burritos were an obvious choice because of their compact packaging.

As it turns out, Chipotle was chosen for Project Wing because of some of the practical questions that arise when it comes to food delivery, as The Verge reports: will food stay warm in the process, and can it be delivered in one piece using a winch system? Burritos were an obvious choice because of their compact packaging. They may be heavier than a pizza, but a burrito won't suffer as much if it's inadvertently flipped upside down. Burritos also retain heat surprisingly well.

The large-scale involvement of the FAA and Alphabet indicate Chipotle plays only a small role in this project, which will be the most extensive test of drone delivery technology to date in the U.S. Virginia Tech is one of only six schools in the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership that will partake in these tests of commercial drones, and Project Wing will use data to further develop its automated delivery capabilities.

Chipotle isn't the first company get into drone food delivery: Foodpanda in Singapore has done it, Amazon has tried it, and pizza giant Domino's has already put drone delivery into practice.

Chipotle, if you are reading this: Can the drone play a song by the Flying Burrito Brothers as it lands? Because that would be cool.

• Alphabet partners with Chipotle to deliver burritos using drones [The Verge]
• Alphabet and Chipotle Are Bringing Burrito Delivery Drones to Campus [Bloomberg]
All Chipotle Coverage on Eater [E]