It's hard to imagine a scenario where you need a burrito so quickly that regular delivery is simply not fast enough.
In theory, though, college kids can have such a pressing need for a tortilla filled with meat, beans, cheese, rice, and various condiments that Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) have plans to deliver burritos via drone. That sounds like a gimmick and a publicity stunt -- which it most certainly is, on one level -- but it's also a soon-to-be reality that will advance how unmanned vehicles are used in a commercial fashion.
What are Chipotle and Alphabet doing?
The two companies are working together to use drones to deliver burritos on the Virginia Tech campus, USA TODAY reported. Hovering drones would lower the Chipotle food on winches directly to students' doors or windows. The actual food will be prepared on a nearby food truck.
Conducted by Project Wing, part of X, Alphabet's lab tasked with leading experimental ventures for the company, this will be the first test of drone delivery to the public in the United States. The test has the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to USA TODAY, which also noted that Project Wing has a relationship with Virginia Tech. The two entities are part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, one of six national test sites for unmanned flying vehicles.
"We want to learn how people feel when they're receiving a package by air, and taking someone's time and/or money changes things more than a little. And we want to feel the pressure of unexpected circumstances that show us how we can get better at loading and managing a fleet of planes," Astro Teller, X's "captain of moonshots," told the paper.
Why does this matter?
For Chipotle, this is likely more about media attention than any real hope to deliver via drone on a widespread basis. That's not to say the chain will never use unmanned flying vehicles for delivery, it just won't be a difference-maker for the company any time soon.
For Alphabet, though, much more is at stake. The internet giant has been racing rival Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) to receive approval for drone delivery. That has been a very long process because of the underlying laws, which don't allow drones to be used for commercial purposes.
The Virginia Tech test, while it's a very controlled environment, puts Alphabet ahead of Amazon since it's testing with real customers.
"It's the first time that we're actually out there delivering stuff to people who want that stuff," Dave Vos, who heads Project Wing, told Bloomberg.
The drones will be automated, but human pilots will be standing by to take over if they need to, according to Vos. Current rules do not allow drones to fly over people, which complicates this test.
How close are delivery drones?
A year ago, when Amazon talked about delivery drones, it was essentially a punch line. The technology still faces enormous hurdles, and those using it have to go a long way to prove it's safe, but it's fair to say it's no longer a far-off, science-fiction idea that sounds silly.
Chipotle and Alphabet are moving forward the idea of using drones for delivery. It's a baby step, but it's going to take lots of tiny movement forward before the FAA allows a sky filled with automated delivery drones.
This may be a gimmick and a novelty now, but it's one that serves a real purpose. The two companies are moving the cause forward and bringing drone delivery closer to being a real technology.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. Even in college, he never needed a burrito that badly. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares), Amazon.com, and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.